Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v Newcastle Knights
Two of the real feel-good stories in the NRL go head to in the early Friday fixture this week with both looking to keep their current impressive win-streak alive.
For long-suffering Knights fans to be able to say they head into this one on the back of two straight wins – the first time since 2015 – is a huge boost. Their loss to Wests Tigers a few weeks back looked to have sealed another wooden spoon for Nathan Brown's men but having clawed back to within one win of the 15th-placed Tigers they now have a realistic shot at avoiding the dreaded piece of kitchenware if they can scrape one or two more wins in their final four games.
Another happy group of fans right now are the ones wearing blue and gold; Eels fans also have every right to be described as 'long-suffering but loyal' and the squad's current six-game win streak has fans not only banking on a first finals appearance in eight seasons but cautiously monitoring the Telstra Premiership ladder predictor in the hopes of a home Elimination Final in the first week of September – or better yet, a Qualifying Final and two bites of the finals cherry.
Fullback Bevan French (hamstring) has been named despite coming off with a minor hamstring complaint last week and Arthur indicating mid-week the speedster would not be risked. Utility playmaker Will Smith and utility back Josh Hoffman have both been named in the reserves and either could come in as cover. Back-rower Tepai Moeroa returns after sitting out last week with minor back and rib niggles. He pushes Kenny Edwards to the bench and Frank Pritchard to the reserves.
Brown has named Dane Gagai to shift to fullback for Nathan Ross (fractured vertebra) with Joe Wardle back at centre and Shaun Kenny-Dowall (hamstring) returning on the wing in place of Chanel Mata'utia.
Why Eels can win: After six wins on the bounce including a hugely impressive upset of the Broncos a fortnight ago, there are no shortage of reasons to like the Eels' chances here. We'll start with their steely defence: just 62 points conceded at a tick over 10 per game is up there with anyone in the comp (admittedly two games against the misfiring Bulldogs attack in that run hasn't hurt). By comparison, the ladder-leading Storm with the NRL's best defence has conceded 87 at 14.5 per game in the same period. The forwards are running and tackling with impressive vigour and mid-season recruit Mitch Moses has hit the best patch of form of his young career since joining Parramatta. Seven try assists and seven line break assists in that period highlight his value since joining the club.
Why Knights can win: Confidence and belief. It has been agonising watching the Knights go so, so close to winning so many games this year only to find ways to lose at the death. From 28-10 up at half time at Kogarah or 18-8 up at Belmore with four minutes to play, the Knights have pulled defeat from the jaws of victory too many times this season. What that shows, though, is that they have the quality to match it with plenty of times for long period. Marry that to their past fortnight in which they have actually figured out how to close out a game – that is, play for 80 minutes rather than 40 or 60 – and you have a team it would be very dangerous to underestimate. With the Saifiti twins cranking out a combined 600 metres over those two games and young half Brock Lamb playing a starring role in both, the Knights will provide much more than nuisance value to Parramatta.
The history: Played 48; Eels 21; Knights 26; Drawn 1. The Eels have won the past two meetings but Newcastle triumphed in seven straight prior to that. The Eels have an excellent recent record at ANZ Stadium with nine wins from their last 10. The Knights have just one win from their past six visits. The last time these two teams met each other at ANZ Stadium was… 2001. If you're not sure what happened that day, just grab the nearest Knights fan and they'll fill you in.
What are the odds: The support for the Knights has only come at the line, where they're receiving a big points start. Three quarters of the cash is with Newcastle in that market, but Sportsbet has seen the money run 5:1 in favour of Parramatta in the head-to-head market. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Henry Perenara; Assistant Referee: Chris Butler; Touch judges: Rickey McFarlane and Jason Walsh; Review Official: Ben Galea; Senior RO: Jared Maxwell.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 5.30pm.
NRL.com predicts: The improving Knights will provide a stern test for the Eels here but with a top-four spot on offer we'll back Parramatta to turn six wins into seven. Eels by 10.