Eels v Knights preview

Parramatta Eels v Newcastle Knights
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Reputations go under the blowtorch again this week as two underperforming units brace for battle, with each desperate to vault from the congested basement of the 2012 Telstra Premiership.

Parramatta added a rare sugar cube to their sour season with a come-from-behind 19-18 win over the Panthers in golden point last weekend, inspired by veteran skipper Nathan Hindmarsh who wound back the clock with a representative-like effort.

Despite the win, just their third in 14 outings, the Eels remain rooted to the bottom of the ladder although they’ve clambered alongside Penrith to jointly be the season’s worst-performing team. Mathematically they are still a chance of making the semi-finals but would need to win all 10 remaining games and have other results fall their way.

Coach Stephen Kearney is breathing a little easier after last week’s morale-booster and would also be buoyed by the good efforts of new recruit, ex-Storm fringe first-grader Luke Kelly, playing outside Chris Sandow. He’ll be hopeful the pair can forge a distinct and forceful halves partnership over the remainder of 2012 – and their job starts in earnest on Saturday given the Eels will miss the attacking thrust of their marquee player Jarryd Hayne who is in camp with the Blues.

Meanwhile the Knights stunned the Wests Tigers with a dramatic mid-game form reversal last Monday night, overturning a 14-nil deficit after 22 minutes to steamroll the visitors 38-20. The victory ended a five-game losing streak and saw Newcastle climb from 14th to 12th on the NRL ladder. They need to win at least eight of their final 10 matches to figure past Round 26.

Eels coach Kearney has made just a couple of personnel tweaks this week, welcoming back Willie Tonga in the centres, with Ryan Morgan moving to the wing and Luke Burt shifting to fullback for Hayne. Reni Maitua joins the bench after his one-match suspension.

Meanwhile Wayne Bennett has named Peter Mata’utia at fullback to cover for Darius Boyd, with Kevin Naiqama and Chris Adams rounding out a six-man interchange.

Worrying omen: Parramatta have won the week after featuring in golden point just once in nine outings, and haven’t done so since March 2007.

Watch Out Eels: The real Timana Tahu stood up with a dazzling hat-trick of tries last week – his first in seven years – and if he holds his enthusiasm and form he’ll really test the nerve of the Eels’ right-edge defence. No team has surrendered more tries one man in from the left sideline – Tahu’s zone – than the Eels’ 18 to date.

Last week Newcastle recorded season-high figures in offloads (13), tackle-breaks (42) and line-breaks (nine). That last stat spells trouble for Parramatta who have conceded the third-most line-breaks (5.2) in the NRL.  

Akuila Uate will still be hurting following his omission from the Blues’ squad for the Origin decider. He responded with a forceful 17 runs and 169 metres against the Tigers, as well as scoring his seventh try of the season. He’ll benefit greatly from that performance and will prove a headache for opposite number Ryan Morgan. Uate has registered four wins from five games against the Eels and scored both their tries in their Round 6 win (see below).

Willie Mason a leader? That’s precisely what the rough-cut prop has morphed into at the Knights. It was Mason who repeatedly urged “let’s jog, let’s jog” to his team-mates as they headed to the sheds at halftime last Monday night. Mason knew the importance of sending a message to the Tigers and also ramming home the advantage in his team-mates’ minds. This week the Eels need to make a special effort to knock the wind out of Mason and keep him quiet or his influence will spread across the Knights again.

Danger Sign: Watch for Jarrod Mullen to put ball to boot often given the Eels are the worst team in the comp at handling attacking kicks. They’ve had problems across the board, leaving them with a lousy 62 per cent defusal rate. They are slow to react to chip kicks, defusing them at a league-low 50 per cent, and are dodgy under cross-field bombs too (41 per cent, second worst). Meanwhile Newcastle have not had great success from the boot, scoring just three times from kicks – but that could all change here given it’s a standout Eels weakness.

Watch Out Knights: After his heroics last week Nathan Hindmarsh will be focussed on crossing off another career achievement here: the Knights remain the only side he’s failed to score against. (In 23 appearances, it’s the longest drought of any active player against a single opponent.) It won’t be for lack of trying – last week he managed a career-high nine tackle busts, his third-most ever hit-ups (23), and his first line-break in two years.

Fuifui Moimoi caught fire against the Panthers with his best game of the year so far, making 143 metres, a line-break and try assist in 53 minutes on the park. His spurts down the left edge will need watching.

With even more room to move on the wing Ryan Morgan can create some damage. Morgan is averaging more than two tackle busts each game and registered seven last week. Also, his partner Ken Sio has made nine line-breaks and scored six tries, so any time the ball is sent wide the Knights’ defence will need to react quickly.

Danger Sign: If Chris Sandow makes a break in the opening 15 minutes, you’ll know he’s switched on to deliver as key playmaker in Hayne’s absence. Sandow made six tackle-breaks and three offloads when they last met.   

Luke Kelly v Jarrod Mullen: With just seven NRL games under his belt Kelly will be primed to cement his career at new club Parramatta, and he gets a good barometer on exactly where he’s at up against ex-Origin player Jarrod Mullen. Kelly defended strongly on debut in the No.6 for the Eels against the Panthers, making 19 tackles and missing just one. Certainly Nathan Hindmarsh is happy to have him on board, disclosing the 22-year-old had immediately plugged something that’s been lacking in the front line: enthusiastic communication. Expect Kelly to grow more comfortable with his plays over the coming weeks. Meanwhile Mullen put some indifferent form behind him with a gilt-edged contribution last week, running the ball forcefully (seven tackle-breaks and a line-break) and adding a try assist and two offloads. He’s a confidence player who really needed a boost; now he has it he’ll be a huge threat – particularly teaming with Tahu down the left edge.

Where It Will Be Won: Repelling the opposition’s attack. Both sides have had their defensive issues so far, with the Eels missing 33.6 tackles each game and the Knights missing 33. Consequently they’ve both struggled to keep oppositions from knocking at their door: in fact the Eels concede the most territory of all teams (1440 metres) with the Knights close behind (1393 metres). Whichever side shows a quantum improvement and limits the field position of the other will have a huge advantage here.   

The History: Played 42; Knights 22, Eels 19, drawn 1. Newcastle have won five of the past eight clashes, including the past three straight. But Parramatta hold a 13-5-1 record at Parramatta Stadium and have won 13 of their past 16 home games against the Knights.  

The Last Time They Met: Newcastle secured an unconvincing 14-6 victory over Parramatta in a dour contest at Hunter Stadium in Round 6.

The home side – who were missing captain Kurt Gidley to injury – posted first points in the sixth minute when Akuila Uate was give a free passage to the try line off a wonderful offload from now-unwanted centre Junior Sa’u. A Tyrone Roberts penalty goal extended their lead to 8-nil with 13 minutes gone.

The Eels struck back six minutes before halftime when prop Tim Mannah bullocked over the Knights’ line and then twisted free of a bunch of Knights defenders who seemingly had him wrapped up. The conversion saw the sides head to the break with the Knights up 8-6.

Uate scored his second try of the afternoon when he crossed untouched after a well-executed right-side sweep in the 53rd minute, with Sa’u again offering the final pass and Darius Boyd figuring in the lead-up also.

But that was as much entertainment as the 24,000-strong crowd would see as both sides bumbled their way through ineffective raids over the closing 25 minutes.

In hindsight Newcastle were lucky to bank the competition points – they completed their sets at a woeful 65 per cent and made a massive 17 errors (to the visitors’ 11).

Aside from Sa’u, the Knights were well-served by prop Kade Snowden (18 hit-ups, 136 metres) and second-rower Zeb Taia (18 hit-ups, 157 metres, seven tackle busts).

For Parramatta, Chris Sandow ran 11 times and made six tackle-breaks, while Jarryd Hayne tallied 185 metres.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Paul Mellor.

The Way We See It: Darius Boyd played a pivotal role in the Knights’ win last week, with three try assists – but Jarryd Hayne means more to the overall Parramatta picture than Boyd does to Newcastle. For that reason alone we’ll opt for the visitors. The Knights by six points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats