Dragons v Eels preview

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St George Illawarra Dragons v Parramatta Eels Thursday 7:50pm at WIN Stadium

Upset unlikely as competition leaders host cellar dwellers

Remaining in Wollongong for consecutive matches for the first time since 2012, the Dragons will be confident of consolidating their position atop the premiership ladder against the last-placed Eels. Separated by a 271-point for-and-against differential - the widest of any two teams in the league - the contrasting form lines produced by the two Sydney clubs this season stands in stark contrast to recent history between the pair. Conceding more than twice as many points against Parramatta in a run of six consecutive losses dating back to 2013, coach Paul McGregor will be hopeful of his rejuvenated side reversing the curse against the Eels with all of the Red V players involved in representative football bar Tyson Frizell named to take part in Thursday's contest. Selecting a 23-man squad for the Round 16 affair, there is a strong likelihood of late changes given the four-day turnaround for the seven players involved in Origin and the Denver test. In the event of multiple last-minute withdrawals, expect the likes of Reece Robson, Blake Lawrie and Luciano Leilua to take on greater responsibility after being given limited game time earlier in the year, while should he be included in the final 17 James Graham will play his 150th match in the NRL.

Languishing in 16th position after starting 2018 as contenders for the premiership, there is no other way to view the Eels season to date as anything other than a complete disaster. Holding a 20% success rate from 15 matches and managing just 39 tries at an average of 2.6 four pointers per game, the baffling reality confronting coach Brad Arthur has been deciphering how things have unravelled so dramatically at Parramatta after finished in the top four twelve months ago. Unable to draw upon the services of imposing second rower Manu Ma'u due to a fractured cheekbone sustained while playing for Tonga in the Pacific Test, the remaining representatives from last weekend have been named to play on Thursday night, while Mitchell Moses has been named to return after missing the matches against North Queensland and South Sydney with a potentially serious knee injury. Experiencing moderate success at WIN Stadium with two wins and a draw from the six matches held at the venue during the joint venture's tenure, the Blue and Golds will be hopeful of an improved showing having been well-rested following a 14-day break from their last match against the Rabbitohs.

Last meeting: Round 15 2017 - Eels 24 Dragons 10

Who to watch: Enduring the trials every utility player faces in being highly sought but unable to secure a consistent starting role, the uncertainty surrounding the availability of several Dragons players should provide Kurt Mann with an opportunity to star on Thursday night. Playing in every backline position for the joint venture since joining from Melbourne two years ago, the 25-year-old began 2018 as an interchange edge forward in the vein of a young Ben Creagh, but having been rewarded for his consistency by jumping ahead of Jason Nightingale on the wing, the question as to where Mann is best suited remains unaccounted for. Named in the number five jersey by Paul McGregor, the Queensland junior could see time in the halves or forwards depending on the final 17, but regardless of the number on his back, look for Mann to step up against an Eels side lacking spark.

In a team that has often been labelled with accusation of being ‘soft' this season, one player who has built a reputation as anything but is Nathan Brown. Sidelined for two months earlier in the year with a worst than expected ankle issue, the 25-year-old lock forward has been one of Parramatta's best performers since joining from South Sydney last season, with his controlled aggression and high work rate garnering plenty of adulation from critics who previously viewed his playing style as thuggish. In the absence of several first choice forwards, Brown will be aware of the increased responsibility required by the Eels to finish ahead of the high-flying Dragons, but as he has shown throughout his career, the chance to get physical in the middle is tailor made for the no-nonsense reigning Ken Thornett medallist.

The favourite: Having won eight more matches than Parramatta prior to last weekend's representative break, St. George Illawarra is expected to move a step closer towards returning to the finals with a win on Thursday night.

My tip: Whether the Dragons maintain the same playing group that have thrived during the first half of 2018 or opt to rest players involved in representative football, the end result should be much the same. Dragons by 16.

1. Matthew Dufty 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Kurt Mann 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Ben Hunt 8. James Graham 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Jacob Host 12. Tariq Sims 13. Jack de Belin 14. Jeremy Latimore 15. Jason Nightingale 17. Luciano Leilua 18. Blake Lawrie

1. Clint Gutherson 2. Bevan French 3. Michael Jennings 4. Jarryd Hayne 5. George Jennings 6. Mitchell Moses 7. Corey Norman 8. Daniel Alvaro 9. Cameron King 10. Siosaia Vave 11. Marata Niukore 12. Brad Takairangi 13. Nathan Brown 14. Will Smith 15. Tim Mannah 16. David Gower 17. Peni Terepo

Referees: Ben Cummins, Peter Gough; Sideline Officials: Kasey Badger, Nick Morel; Video Referees: Ashley Klein, Ben Galea;

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