Knights v Eels
With jostling for position still furious at several parts of the ladder heading into the final round of the regular season, the Novocastrians at least have the advantage of knowing their fate is well and truly in their own hands.
They have a further advantage in that every side currently in competition with them for a finals berth plays before they host this year’s wooden spooners at Hunter Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Warriors, Titans and Cowboys are all locked on 26 competition points, just one behind the seventh-placed Knights on 27. And all three of those sides play consecutively on Super Saturday – with the Warriors and Cowboys going in favourites against the struggling Dragons and Tigers respectively, while the Titans have a tougher ask away to the Storm.
Still, if any two of those three sides win, Newcastle will be bumped down to ninth and in need of a win against the embattled Eels to claw back into the top eight. If just one of those sides win then this game will decide whether the Knights finish seventh or eighth, and hence whether they travel to face the Sharks or Bulldogs, with the Dogs currently favourites to hold onto fifth spot.
While they will certainly be expected to win – especially after a strong and much-needed away victory over Brisbane last week – they won’t have it entirely their own way. The Eels are coming off a rare win, for starters, while the Knights have a few personnel issues to contend with.
Form prop Kade Snowden is obviously gone for the year for his shot on Cowboy Ray Morgan a fortnight ago but in a massive blow, playmaking utility and skipper Kurt Gidley suffered yet another awful foot injury last week to be ruled out for the year.
It means Tyrone Roberts comes back on as starting half while Alex McKinnon goes back to the bench for returning lock Jeremy Smith.
With the wooden spoon sewn up the Eels have little to gain or lose from their last match of the year, which could potentially make them a tricky prospect. They will be buoyed not only by last week’s win against the Dragons but by the fact they did it without go-to man Jarryd Hayne, who has again not been named – although the club has said in the team announcement he “remains a possibility of a late inclusion”.
It means Ken Sio will again play fullback, with the entire named side identical to the one that took the field last week following a late reshuffle – including Vai Toutai on the wing, Ben Roberts in the centres, Reni Maitua at five-eighth and Pat O’Hanlon starting in the second row. The Eels actually made it through last week with just 16 players, so Daniel Harrison is the only addition.
Watch Out Knights: The Eels had a couple of standouts last week but a man who made a big enough impact to earn the man-of-the-match award, following several weeks of strong form, was Joe Paulo. Coming off the bench, Paulo made 134 metres from 13 runs and his line-break late in the first half split the defence late in the tackle count – only for Paulo to immediately call for the ball on the next play to grubber in goal and force a line-dropout. The Eels need players who want to make a difference with the ball in their hands, especially with Hayne out, and it’s that sort of play they’ve been lacking this year.
And a man who was unsurprisingly a star, but in a most surprising way, was two-try hero Fuifui Moimoi, whose first-half double had the Eels going to the break surprising leaders after conceding the first two. Although the Eels will be less worried about him latching onto cross-field kicks and more worried about bending the opposition defensive line up in Newcastle.
All three – and the rest of the side – will need to match or improve on last week’s efforts to challenge Newcastle at home.
Watch Out Eels: Most stats don’t make pretty reading for the Eels this year and their record away from home – 13 games for 13 losses with a colossal 33 points per game conceded – is of particular concern, but there are some key figures the Knights will be eyeing off.
The biggest danger sign for the Eels, who are conceding the most territory in the NRL at 1447 metres per game – is the fact they are meeting the competition’s leading metre-eaters. Newcastle make 1435 metres per game and winger Akuila Uate will be looking to make up for an embarrassing blunder last week, dropping the ball over the line without a hand on him, by taking out his frustrations on the Eels.
Uate has made the fifth-most metres in the league at 2969 in 2013, and is number one when it comes to kick returns, making 1335 metres from 97 such runs at 13.8 metres each. Given the Eels’ propensity in 2013 for picking out opposition backs on the full with long kicks, Uate will be looking for a prosperous day out.
Plays To Watch: Precision long kicks from Knights pivot Jarrod Mullen to test the Eels’ new-look backline (most long kicks this year at 172; 107 to open space); Radradra to continue on his try-scoring ways (five tries in just six games to be Parramatta’s fourth-highest scorer in 2013 and even got over the stripe in the 64-4 loss to Melbourne); James McManus to continue his breakout year (17 tries in 22 games, previous best 10 tries in 2011 and 2012); Eels skipper Tim Mannah again leading from the front (143 metres from 14 runs in 59 minutes last week).
Key Match-Up: Jarrod Mullen v Luke Kelly. The kicking duel will be crucial and Mullen is an expert at kicking long and finding space. Kelly is still finding his feet in the halves but his kicking game is much improved. As a virtually lone kicking option, Mullen will be targeted by Eels’ defenders on last tackle options but he tends to get a good kick away even in traffic. Kelly will need to help level the yardage disadvantage the Eels often find themselves facing, and stop the likes of Uate fielding long kicks on the full.
Where It Will Be Won: Well it won’t be the battle of the offloads – these two sides have offloaded the ball on fewer occasions than any other clubs in 2013. This means it will likely be almost the opposite: whichever side is better at clawing every possible metre out of each hit-up, and whichever side can win the wrestle in defence and slow down the opposition dummy-half darts will go a long way to winning the arm-wrestle in the middle and creating opportunities for points.
The History: Played 43; Newcastle 23, Parramatta 19, drawn 1. Given the Eels’ away form this year their record at Hunter Stadium – six wins from 21 visits – doesn’t inspire confidence. The Knights are currently on a four-match winning run against the Eels, who last beat Newcastle in 2009, at home.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Jason Robinson & Luke Patten.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed, 4pm.
The Way We See It: The Eels sent a handful of blue-and-gold faithful home happy last week but we suspect that will be their last hurrah for 2013. The Knights have everything to play for in front of their ‘Old Boys’ and they’re hosting a team that has simply not looked competitive away from home at any stage in 2013. Knights by 14 points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.