Dan Walsh, Staff Writer
Eels v Knights
You wouldn't know it based on their performances last weekend, but the Eels and the Knights effectively occupied the other's position on the competition ladder this time last year; an indication of just how far both teams have travelled – albeit in opposite directions – in the space of 12 months as they come together this Sunday afternoon for the first time in 2014.
Heading into Round 16 last season, the Eels found themselves locked in the NRL basement with the handle having fallen off the only door out, while the Knights sat on the edge of the Top 8 by virtue of points differential, and remarkably the two sides find themselves having traded places, with the Parramatta now hovering inside the eight just five for and against points ahead of the Tigers, while Newcastle have peeled themselves off the bottom of the ladder, but still possess the same 3-11 win-loss record the eventual wooden spoon side had to show for their efforts as the competition rounded the four-month mark in 2013.
Of course, all of this means diddly-squat judging by their most recent 80-minute displays. The Knights turned in their best showing of the year as Wayne Bennett shuffled the red and blue deck-chairs against the Cowboys, with Kurt Gidley's move to halfback resulting in a direct and aggressive approach in attack, and ultimately the Novocastrians’ first win in 73 days. The 36-28 score line flattered the visitors as well, with the Knights conceding four tries in the final 18 minutes when the game was in the bag.
The Eels meanwhile looked as though they were still stuck on the bus when kickoff rolled around against the Storm, finding themselves down 18-0 before they started to improve on a 61 per cent completion rate, dragging the score back to 18-10 and then 24-16 midway through the second stanza.
Realistically though Brad Arthur's men were never truly in the hunt, well behind the eight ball long before Chris Sandow wound up cooling his jets for his childish questioning of who handles the referees’ paycheques. The Eels were taught a couple of footballing lessons by a rampant Melbourne outfit to the tune of 46-20.
Both sides would dearly love the two competition points here, the Knights to continue their march out of the woods that they have only just started, and the Eels to avoid slipping back into the dark old days where conceding over 40 points a game was a common occurrence rather than a blip of their now much-improved defensive radar.
Ryan Morgan retains his spot out wide for the Eels, with Will Hopoate out for the next two weeks with a shoulder injury, while Darcy Lussick returns to replace the injured Lee Mossop (shoulder), slotting in alongside Mitch Allgood, who also comes onto the bench.
For the Knights Kade Snowden and David Fa'alogo return from suspension and injury respectively, with Fa'alogo set to start, pushing Korbin Sims to the bench alongside Snowden who wears No.17.
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Watch Out Eels: Melbourne ran rampant over the Eels last Sunday at AAMI Park, and key to their dominance was a judicious kicking game that resulted in five tries from kicks in the Eels’ 20-metre zone, with Parramatta's outside men looking about as comfortable as a haemophiliac at a blood drive whenever the Storm's halves put a hoof to the ball.
Whether hoisted high or grubbered in behind the line, the Eels consistently either lost the race to the pill, fumbled or watched the likes of Billy Slater fly high above them, with not even man of the moment Jarryd Hayne immune to a few jitters when the ball came bouncing his way. The Knights are hardly the most potent outfit in the NRL when it comes to a short-kicking game, having scored just two tries from kicks in 2014, but with Jarrod Mullen sure to be riding high after his performance against the Cowboys, Newcastle will be well-served to put the boot in at any chance they get.
Watch Out Knights: Plenty has been made about the Hayne Plane in full flight, and Chris Sandow plays like a jack-in-the-box loaded with fire crackers, but all the while Eels five eighth Corey Norman has been quietly going about his business, putting together his most consistent season in first grade, underestimated by opposition outfits at their peril. Now into his fourth year at the top level, Norman sits near the top of the NRL pile when it comes to running five-eighths in 2014, having broken more tackles (32) than any other pivot in the game, and with 1076 metres trails only Brisbane's Josh Hoffman (1202m) for yardage gained in the number 6 jumper. The Knights need only watch a highlights reel of the Eels’ loss to the Storm, in which Norman's 30-metre cut out ball landed smack bang on the chest of Semi Radradra for Parramatta's second try, to get a gauge on how his ball-playing is coming along.
Plays To Watch: Beau Scott running up and down that right-edge corridor like clockwork and looking for a repeat of the try he set up by running over the top of Johnathan Thurston last Monday night; Pauli Pauli to get those long gangly arms free at least once and watch havoc ensue with a deft offload; the Knights’ second man play to the left with Darius Boyd chiming in – few do it better than the bearded custodian when he's on song; And you can put your bottom dollar on Chris Sandow having a crack at booting a 40/20 having already nailed two this year (equal most in the NRL) and going within an inch of registering a third against the Bulldogs a few weeks back.
Where It Will Be Won: The spine. With Gidley moving to halfback against the Cowboys the Knights played with more direction and purpose in 80 minutes than had been seen in the previous eight weeks, and in the process saw Mullen, Boyd and Gidley himself rediscover their respective running games that had been previously MIA since April. In Sandow and Hayne, the Eels have two of the best runners in the game in their respective positions, though they will need more from new hooker Isaac De Gois, who made just one run for three metres against the Storm, and is understandably still finding his feet in the blue and gold's playmaking combination that packs plenty of firepower. Whichever outfits' little men can make the most of their opportunities with the ball will go a long way towards claiming the chocolates in this one.
The History: Played 46, Knights 24, Eels 19, drawn 3. The Knights have had the wood over the Eels for nigh on five years now, with their last defeat to Parramatta coming way back in Round 22, 2010. Barring the 54-6 thrashing handed down by Newcastle in Ricky Stuart's last match at the helm in 2013, recent clashes between these two outfits have been low scoring affairs, with the last four matches yielding an average of just 19 points, and Parramatta cracking double figures just once.
What Are The Odds: The Eels are popular in this one with the Knights drifting from $2.65 to $2.75 with Sportsbet.com.au. There is five times more money on the Eels.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Henry Perenara; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Steve Carrall; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine, delayed from 4pm.
How We See It: A week ago we wouldn't have dreamed of tipping against Parramatta at home against a Knights outfit that looked for all money like it had forgotten how to win. But after the Eels’ average effort down in Melbourne, and the Knights’ slick showing against the Cowboys, we're still going with the Eels, but we did at least contemplate a sneaky Newcastle upset. Eels by 6.