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Newcastle Knights v Parramatta Eels
Hunter Stadium
Sunday 3pm

After a long wait to get off the mark, Stephen Kearney’s Eels finally opened their account against the Sea Eagles last week – and as such should present an intriguing challenge to a Knights side that hasn’t quite clicked so far in 2012 and will be without its captain.

In a major blow to Newcastle’s hopes skipper Kurt Gidley has been ruled out for a month with a knee injury. It’s almost a direct reversal of fortunes for Parramatta, who would be delighted at the way star fullback Jarryd Hayne slotted back into first grade last week following his own lengthy layoff with a knee problem.

But there’s certainly no reason to write off the Knights’ hopes – former Newcastle and NSW skipper Danny Buderus assumes the captaincy and along with the likes of chief playmaker Jarrod Mullen, fullback Darius Boyd and prop Kade Snowden will ensure the Knights are lacking in neither direction nor leadership.

Newcastle knocked off the in-form Bulldogs a fortnight ago and last week fought hard against competition frontrunners Melbourne, scoring three late tries in going down 34-22. They are sure to lift back on their home soil following two tough road trips.

It’s harder to gauge exactly where the Eels are at exactly – they were beyond woeful in back-to-back capitulations against the Cowboys and Panthers, but at times looked like world-beaters last week in a convincing 29-20 win over premiers Manly.

Even more pleasing for Kearney than the return of Hayne would have been the way the side refused to panic when Manly grabbed the lead for the first time in that match part way through the second half. Rather than going on to lose by 20, which seemed a distinct possibility based on previous weeks, the Eels dug in, hit straight back and then clung desperately to their lead.

The stats show how far the Eels improved on their previous outing: against Penrith they missed 32 tackles and made a coach-killing 15 errors. Against Manly it was a far more acceptable 20 missed tackles and seven errors.

Kearney has named exactly the same side as last week – with Esi Tonga again listed at centre despite being a late withdrawal with hamstring soreness last week. He takes the place of Ryan Morgan. Fuifui Moimoi and Joe Paulo have again been named on the bench although the pair started in place of Tim Mannah and Taniela Lasalo last week. Moimoi’s first hit-up against the Panthers came with his side already 22-0 down, so Kearney may again look to inject him early.

And despite scoring another two tries for Wentworthville last week, fan favourite Luke Burt has again been overlooked for youngster Cheyse Blair, who put a horror night against Penrith behind him (opposite number Etu Uaisele scored a hat-trick) with a far stronger showing against Manly.

Knights coach Wayne Bennett has only made one change to his run-on side, with youngster Tyrone Roberts taking the halfback’s role and shifting Mullen to five eighth in Gidley’s absence. Matt Hilder has also been added to a five-man bench.

The loss of Gidley is a big one for the Knights – over the past five seasons they have won just seven of the 24 games he has missed.

Watch Out Knights: Talismanic fullback Jarryd Hayne showed exactly what he brings to this Eels outfit – both last week through his actions and in the previous four matches in his absence. The Eels jumped out of the blocks against the Warriors in Round 2 but fell apart when Hayne left the field, and last week earned their first victory of the season in his first full game.

Hayne looked to be under mountains of pressure in a floundering side last season as he tried to do it all himself. With off-season recruits Chris Sandow and Ben Roberts filling the playmaking roles it relieves the pressure on Hayne and allows him to choose when to inject himself. And he did so admirably last week, collecting a deft Roberts kick to open the scoring, throwing a perfect cut-out ball for winger Ken Sio to cross in the corner then later supporting a Roberts line-break to reclaim the lead – a point from which the Eels were never headed.

One try assist, two tries and a game-high 215 running metres, all while still troubled by a knee injury, underscores the danger Hayne presents.

Danger Sign: Hayne is at his most dangerous when watching the action from fullback. If the Eels side are pressing the line, Hayne prefers to sit back until he spots an opening – as he did in setting up Sio’s try last week – to slide up into the line and deliver one of those trademark cut-out passes or roll a grubber into the in-goal.

Watch Out Eels: Chief playmaker and Origin hopeful Jarrod Mullen has had a dominant start to the season but he will need to step up further in Gidley’s absence, and will no doubt also be keen to keep his name in the minds of Blues selectors. Mullen currently leads the club for line-breaks (four), tackle-breaks (16) and try assists (two) while his three tries are behind only winger James McManus.

Also, Mullen is currently the number one kicker in the competition in terms of finding space on long kicks, with 18 of 33 such kicks forcing opposition backs to turn and collect the ball. He’ll be looking to use that accuracy to keep the ball away from danger man Jarryd Hayne.

Danger Sign: The great halves are always more dangerous when opposition sides aren’t sure if they’re going to pass it, kick it or run straight through the line. Mullen’s current average of 6.6 runs per game is up on his career average of 5.8 but down on his 7.3 runs per game in 2011. Given his early successes in tackle-breaks and line-breaks he needs to remind the Eels that they can’t be sure what to expect when he’s got the ball in his hands.

Kade Snowden v Tim Mannah: Last year’s State of Origin Game One team-mates could be considered pack leaders at their respective clubs. With Snowden returning home to Newcastle each is playing at the club where they made their first grade debuts and they are currently leading their respective forward packs for metres gained. Snowden in particular has had an impressive start to 2012, averaging 129 metres from 15.2 runs, while Mannah is just slightly down on his 2011 numbers so far with 117.6 metres from 13.6 runs. Mannah showed he didn’t appreciate last week’s demotion to the bench however, busting out 142 metres from 15 aggressive runs.

Where It Will Be Won: This will be a battle of the playmakers. Both sides have a solid forward pack and some talented outside backs – but will be coming to grips with a halves combination that have played little football together. The Eels have the edge here, with Roberts and Sandow having played enough games now to have developed an understanding, while the addition of Hayne rounds out a potentially dangerous trio.

Newcastle halfback Tyrone Roberts is playing in just his eighth game and his first game of 2012, meaning Mullen will be expected to take the lead. Bennett will also be looking for more input from major off-season signing Darius Boyd at fullback. Boyd is yet to contribute a try, try assist, line-break or line-break assist this year – but he contributed 18 line-break assists and 18 try assists in a premiership-winning St George Illawarra side in 2010 and Bennett will be hoping his fullback starts to involve himself more.

The History: Played 41, Newcastle 21, Parramatta 19, drawn 1. The Eels have a terrible record in Newcastle, winning just six of their 20 match-ups there, and on four occasions have lost by more than 20 points. The last eight meetings have been split four apiece although the Knights have won the past two – both low-scoring affairs at Hunter Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: A Kurt Gidley penalty goal was the only thing separating these two sides in Round 12 last year, when a Wes Naiqama try in the first half was matched by a Casey McGuire try in the second half as the Knights prevailed 8-6.

The Eels started brightly as Jarryd Hayne regained a short Luke Burt kick-off, but they finished the set with an error which set the tone for a night in which their 21 errors (against 14 from the Knights) and 36 missed tackles (Knights 22) cost them dearly.

Midway through the first half Wes Naiqama ran through some ragged left-side defence following a breakdown in communication between Burt and Ryan Morgan. A swinging arm from McGuire piggybacked the Knights downfield midway through the second stanza which was immediately followed by a high shot from Moimoi which allowed Gidley to extend the lead to eight. McGuire closed the gap to two when he cleaned up a Jeff Robson kick shortly after but Hayne dropped the ball from the ensuing kick-off in what was the first of six Parramatta errors – including three from Hayne – in a scoreless last 20 minutes.

If Hayne is still having nightmares about that game it may be less due to his six errors on the night and more down to the bone-rattling hit from Knights forward Joel Edwards that featured heavily on end-of-season highlights reels.

Akuila Uate (180 metres, five tackle-breaks) and Naiqama (144 metres, 10 tackle-breaks, a try) were standouts for the Knights.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: The loss of Gidley is massive for the Knights while there is no doubting the impact Hayne brings to the Eels. But the Hunter is traditionally a tough road trip for Parramatta, and Newcastle still have plenty of attacking weapons even without their inspirational skipper. If the Eels can turn in another performance like last week then the Knights are in real trouble – but we’ll need to see them do it more consistently before we’re prepared to tip them on a regular basis. Either way it should be a close one – we’ll take the Knights by four.

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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