"It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up" is a Lombardi maxim that applies for the Eels for the rest of the year. Perhaps, forever.
This week, facing a heavily depleted Knights missing a galaxy of their stars, the Eels are expected to win. And the Eels really need to stand up following heavy back-to-back losses that have exposed deeply worrying signs around their defence and valid question marks around their credentials.
And no Eel fan has forgotten the second half of 2020 where we crumbled. Perhaps ominiously, we're also at the half-way mark, now. Many may be wondering: are we seeing a repeat of 2020? And why?
Both teams will be desperate. The Knights haven't won two in a row since round 2 and need to try and keep in range of the eight before they drift out in the ether. Conversely, the Eels haven't had three losses in a row since 2019 in that horror stretch between rounds 9-11, and will drop from third to fifth on the ladder if they lose. Out of that critical top-four position.
The Knights should be up for a fight after a morale-boasting upset win over Manly whom conquered us convincingly only two weeks ago. And the Eels can struggle against a team who stay in the battle. It's also the Knights' old boy reunion starting from today through the weekend celebrating 20 years since the their 2001 grand final win over us. That might lift their spirits, helping a boil over.
Knights have performed best against the Eels; and at home
The Knights have won four from six at McDonald Jones Stadium this season, albiet have been savaged by injuries, Origin and suspensions. They've also been unconvincing in 2021. Looking like also-rans.
The Knights also have the best record against the Eels than any other team in the competition over the last 12 years - in that time the Eels have only won four times.
Ironically, although the Eels have struggled to beat the Knights over the last 12 years - for only four times - three of those four wins were at this ground.
Performances last month: close
The Knights have been attacked in the media with plenty of commentators including our Peter Sterling almost writing them off.
However, if we had a ladder of the last month there wouldn't be much between them. Both the Knights and the Eels have won 2 from 4. Both conceding more than they have scored.
Both would sit awkwardly in a whole bunch of unconvincing performers between 6th-11th and could quite easily slip towards the bottom. Neighbours with some basket cases also referred to as the Broncos, Raiders, and Dogs. Waiting to fly over the Cuckoo nest.
Could this game be another close one?
The Knights and the Eels have a history of some close tussles. And all of the Eels four wins since 2010 were by either 2 or 6 point margins.
Sunday, 4.05pm, McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle.
Referee: Adam Gee.
Knights: depleted, missing big guns
1. Tex Hoy 2. Starford To’a 3. Enari Tuala 4. Bradman Best 5. Brayden Musgrove 6. Connor Watson (Jake Clifford) 7. Phoenix Crossland 8. Sauaso Sue 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Jacob Saifiti 11. Brodie Jones 12. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 13. Mitchell Barnett
Bench: 14. Kurt Mann 15. Josh King 16. Jack Johns 17. Simi Sasagi
Reserves: 18. Jake Clifford 19. Jirah Momoisea 20. Matt Croker 21. Gehamat Shibasaki
Head Coach: Adam O'Brien
Injuries and outs: Kalyn Ponga (groin, Origin I), Mitchell Pearce (pectoral, round 14-16), Hymel Hunt (hamstring, indefinite), Edrick Lee (foot, indefinite), Chris Randall (wrist, indefinite), Pasami Saulo (leg, season), Daniel Saifiti (Origin), David Klemmer (suspension), Tyson Frizell (Injury, ankle, 6 weeks).
Sauaso Sue replaces David Klemmer in the Knights’ front row after the former NSW star copped a two-game ban. Jacob Saifiti starts alongside Sue with brother Daniel in NSW camp. Kurt Mann moves onto the interchange as Jack Johns, son of Matthew, looks set to make his Knights debut.
There are rumours Jake Clifford (above) may start in the halves which could see Connor Watson benched. Jake could be a good acquisition for the Knights, having been a factor in the Cowboys' recent resurgence. Meanwhile, Phoenix Crossland has looked solid so far with a good kicking game.
Watson (above) has been one of the Knights' better performers and he'll need a big game if the Knights are to spring an upset. Meanwhile, Bradman Best has not been able to cross for a try since round 1, so he is perhaps due?
Eels: Dylan and RCG back, but Junior and Fergo out
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 4. Waqa Blake 5. Haze Dunster 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney (playing TBC, could be a late out due to Orgin call up) 10. Marata Niukore 11. Isaiah Papali’i 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown
Bench: 14. Will Smith 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Bryce Cartwright
Reserves: 18. Joey Lussick 19. Makahesi Makatoa 20. Jakob Arthur 21. Will Penisini
Head Coach: Brad Arthur
Injuries, outs: Junior Paulo (Origin, back round 14), Blake Ferguson (dropped and playing in reserves not named in first grade or NSW Cup), Keegan Hipgrave (suspension, round 14).
Five-eighth Dylan Brown and prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard return from suspension. Oregon Kaufusi goes to the bench. Jakob Arthur slides back to the reserves. Marata Niukore replaces Blues' Junior Paulo in the front row. Mahoney could still be an out and make his Orgin debut.
Haze Dunster (above) has come in for Ferguson on the right wing, assumedly. There's also unconfirmed rumours by some media outlets such as Fox that Waqa Blake will be dropped for rookie Penisi to make his debut.
Fergo's future is up in the clouds. He's scored 12 tries from 11 games against the Knights.
Under referee Adam Gee the Eels have won 61% (14/23) and the Knights only 30% (6/30). Eels have won 4 of the last 5 (since 2019) under Gee. Knights v Eels are 1-1 under Gee, with the Eels winning the last game at Bankwest but losing the last game at this ground in 2018. Our record under Gee is far better than that under week's referee, Sutton.
Eels suffered a heavy loss against Souths' 38-20 on Indigenous Round at Stadium Australia on Saturday night. With some troops back and essentially at full-strength the Rabbits bounced back after a horror few weeks and a Dubbo drubbing - completing dismantling our right edge and bringing the Eels defence under a public microscope.
It completed a smorgasbord of trifectas. The Eels' third straight loss to Souths. The third straight time Souths piled on exactly 38 points. The third straight loss against Souths under the same referee, Sutton. And then Alex Johnston bagged three tries. So too did Dane Gagai. Of course. I might consider punching myself in the head three times and Fergo needs at least three operations on his nose to secure his future in modelling. Now onto the Knights.
Meanwhile, the Knights ran down a 0-10 lead by Manly to come out on top 18-10. Phoenix Crossland helped Knights gain good field position with a good kicking game and is showing his long-touted potential after injury cruelled his chances last year. Connor Watson was also superb, too.
Though it was a hard-fought victory it wasn't overly convincing. Manly were off their game and conceded 9-1 penalties and 2-1 sin bins - noting Knights only sin-bin was Klemmer's in the 79'. A one-minute affair. Knights also had 45-9 tackles in Manly's 20m so probably should have won more handsomely given the circumstances.
Eels' Defence: Is it an "Easy Fix"?
In his post-game pressor last week, Arthur admitted that the Eels' right edge defence - in particular the relationship between Fergo and Waqa - wasn't working and a problem as far as the "back end" of last year.
Both things were obvious to everyone as is the obvious question: why hasn't it been fixed?
Eels' fans on this site have been rightly fuming and some of the concerns were well summised by Super's blog asking whether it was time for Arthur to go another of Electric Analysis' excellent blogs also querying Arthur's coaching and whether Fergo is a scapegoat?
Perhaps even worse than the 56 points the Eels conceded over the past two weeks is the fact that they have leaked 20 line breaks (according to nrl.com and 22 for Foxsport). That's a linebreak every 2 minutes 37 and a try every 4 minutes 22 seconds the opposition has the ball. Tellingly, this happened when faced with heavyweights of the competition bringing their A-game and things not going the Eels way the right edge has conceded 11 tries in two weeks after conceding 9 tries in the first ten weeks where it leaked less points than the left.
Earlier this week, Sterlo slammed the Eels suggesting they should watch videos of how the "Panthers" and "Roosters" defend. He noted how the Eels should take notes from Trent Robinson's defensive philiosophy that sees the line as an organic "Moving Organism" adding, "They can't just always come up and in, sometimes you need to slide and use the sideline as an extra defender". He concluded:
"[The Eels] don't understand defence and the philosophy of it...I'm saying the same things as last year."
He also called out the poor decision-making of Jake Arthur and Blake Ferguson's inabillity to trust the inside man who continually jams in unable to stay on the outside marking his man. Last year, Sterlo was also critical of the right edge last year and in particular Blake Ferguson.
Later in the week, Sterlo went to the trouble of offering solutions and more detailed video analysis (see video above). One wonders how the Eels' coaching staff and heirachy feel about all of this? Or players? Mitchell Moses (below) spoke out about this earlier in the week.
As you would expect and hope Moses was bulish, noting:
"It's a tough road trip against the Knights... [But] We know what we need to do to fix it... It's an easy fix... We need to nail our moments.."
Moses added: "The boys have missed Dylan. He's such a good defender. It really hurt him being on the sidelines".
Dylan Brown (above) also had his say on the issue using Brad Arthur's well-used 'systems' mantra adding:
"We went away from our 'systems'...It wasn't any particular player. It was a team effort. It's not just the end result. Everyone sees the end result, but...it's fast play the balls...and the tackles leading up to it."
The Ouchy Wawa
All the above aside, one would be naive to assume the Eels' defensive issues are solely a 2020 and 2021 issue.
Matt Elliot (above) in this 2019 episode of Coaches' Corner in the September finals before we met the Storm pointed out how the Eels' compressed ruck defence, where the inside men weren't sliding was a major issue that would expose our edges.
Katie Brown asked him what were the consequences of this and Elliot replied: "Ouchy Wawa".
All this aside, this week, the right edge may not be under as much pressure given the opposition and outs of Jake Arthur and Mr Jammin' Fergilicous both of whom have struggled defensively. No doubt, the only reason Waqa Blake wasn't under as much scrutiny this round was because he was on the left edge.
The cursed Soft Underbelly?
There were warning signs before the Manly and Souths games.
Through the year there were regular fade outs were we let the opposition back in. nnd I asserted the team lacked killer instinct and mental toughness numerous times - prior to those games. Refer the R9 post-mortem and R11 preview: pretenders or contenders? blogs for details. There, I questioned the Eels defence and genuine credientials suggesting we had yet to be really tested - prior to the Manly and Souths games. Unfortunately, the last two weeks have added further weight to those concerns.
In truth, the soft underbelly we showed in the last two weeks is nothing new. Culturally. Post-1986. And in our 2017, 2019 and 2020 finals' campaigns.
Some may point out our wins against the Storm and Roosters as well as Canberra in Canberra this year - as some evidence we may have overcome our inability to beat top teams this year and may be a contender this year. I had hoped for this too.
Yet, look closer. Some things went our way. We won the Storm game in the dying minutes and off the back of two kicks and mirculous takes by Sivo. The Roosters were heavily depleted and we had all the opportunities to win and win well. We had 65% possession. We the restarts 6-1 and penalties 5-4. We had overwhelming territory and opportunity with 63-8 tackles in the Roosters' 20m red zone. The Roosters made 425 tackles (35 missed) to our 271 (28 missed). Yet, somehow 7 minutes out from full-time the Roosters were only behind by 6 points. Meanwhile, the Raiders have proven they're not the same team they were over the last few years losing 4 from 5 in Canberra to date. We weren't fully tested in those games.
That is not to say we were not playing well or never in form prior to round 11. In the earlier rounds on the whole, putting aside the Saints loss, we were outstanding and playing exceptionally well.
However, in a nutshell, I believe the conditions and circumstances prior to Manly and Souths didn't arise to fully test the teams character and resolve. And there were warning signs along the way as pointed out previously.
Then we faced greater adversity when things didn't go our way and a red-hot opposition up for the fight - we couldn't keep up. Under those conditions we imploded both defensively and in attack, clamming up, often playing conservatively and predictably, missing a plethora of opportunities. How far we go in 2021 will rest on whether we can address this. To use a Sir Alex Ferguson phrase the Eels don't deal well with "squeaky-bum time". At least not yet.
Gus Gould summed up some of the Eels issues in his six tackles podcast and on the recent Footy Show, this week. However, he also tipped the Eels, believing they have the strike and class to beat the Knights, concluding:
"They [Parramatta ] beat up on the weaker sides but are found wanting against sides that stand up to them...Parramatta need to win [against the Knights]...For their own personal integrity."
Is there hope?
It would be tempting to cross a line through the Eels - at least with a pencil if not a pen.
However, if there was one positive in the Souths and Manly game - against heavyweights - we didn't surrender. We did not allow a 40-50 point margin blowout as we once may have. We stayed in the battle. This was also true in the earlier upset loss to the Saints.
Looking back at earlier years and we have been subject to those 40-50 blow-out margins conceding over 50-60 points:
- In 2020 Souths demolished us 38-0 (round 16) after we had been playing unconvincingly for the second half of the year.
- In 2019 the Storm anniliated us 64-10 (Magic round 9) which preceded a 32-0 demolition by the Storm in finals week 2
- In 2018 Manly wiped their boots over us 54-0 (round 2) early in the season set the tone where we stuggled all year. Then there was a 44-6 demolition by the Cowboys (round 24) and a 44-10 drubbing by the Roosters (round 26) at the end of the year to put the cherry on top.
- In 2017 the Roosters hammered us 48-10 (round 10)
- In 2015 the Cowboys eventual premiers bashed us 46-4 (round 20)
- In 2014 the Roosters smashed us to pieces 56-4 (round 2), then the Cowboys did it 42-14 (round 8), the Storm 46-20 (round 15), the Warriors 48-0 (round 18) and lastly the Knights hammered us 42-12 (round 25) to end an absymsal year.
We haven't seen the likes of these in 2021. Not yet.
I'm not sure the team could recover mentally with the confidence and steely inner belief if that happened. There's a reason no team has ever won a title after conceding 50 points.
Perhaps, Arthur's "effort mantra", staying in the battle standing shoulder to shoulder, is finally seeping into the team's DNA? Only time will tell.
Other positives: improvement, more depth and skill
Mahoney is in career best form and finally providing a greater attacking threat in the middle (we haven't really had a threat at dummy half since the Marsh-Drew era 20 years ago).
Papali'i is also in career best form igniting the left edge with hard running, hard yakka, and a contender for the competition's Buy Of The Year. I'd argue he's our premier edge forward now. He's pushed Lane to the bench and in the middle which is better for us - even if Lane tends to be one of our slow sliders and reactors still hurting our edge. To a lesser degree the x-factor that Cartwright provides (if his defence holds) though he's dropped off a little - he's displayed the best form since 2016. And, Gutho is. Well. Gutho. Mr Fitness and Consistency. Bustling, hustling his way forward despite his speed.
Moses, too, though he's had a few down weeks recently, is in career best footy admitting he feels he's playing "best footy" here. He's improved his defence, kicking game, and passing game. If only we get a little more juice from his dangerous running game.
Nuikore's also come of age and shown how useful he is at top grade - both in the middle and edges. Kaufusi is in career best form as is RCG to really help our middle and power game.
Conversely, The Browns have dropped off a little - especially Dylan. Junior tends to have his off days ,as does Lane, but Junior's still a threat and Origin class and a critical factor to our success.
All that gives a glimmer of hope, despite the very long shadow history casts.
We rank high in run metres and are better than the Knights in most areas except for a few areas such as errors, ineffective tackles and support play. So let's look at some of these.
Yardage: Bash and Barge; Fatigue
There's been a bit of criticism over our bash and barge fatiguing our middle men.
If there's another lesson to be learnt from Robinson - other than about his organic "moving as one organism" defence that Sterlo alluded - is his often-used strategy of rotating and resting players, especially the big men in the middle in past years.
However, a good yardage game often translates to success. Warren Ryan, a great and influential coach, was passionate on this issue asserting:
"The uneducated only see the bash and barge. They have no idea about the science behind it all."
Five of the last seven premiers have been top three in average running metres. Since 2009 no premier has had lower than 7th in running metres outside the Roosters in 2013 (10th). Storm were 7th for running metres in 2020. The Eels are 2nd for run metres.
Against Souths we were down on our average metres and conceded more. Souths made almost 1700m to our 1380m. Souths middle men in metres and post contact metres made 964m to the Eels' 611m. It makes it hard for the Eels to climb back into the contest if we're losing the middle.
However, just as critical is the run metres conceded (Foxsport stats). Eight of the last nine premiers have allowed the opposition to run for the fewest or second fewest metres per game.
In 2021 the Eels are 5th best for least metres conceded in this category. Reasonable, yet outside the premier zone. The best teams will come as no surprise: Storm (1st), Panthers (2nd), Roosters (3rd), Souths (4th). Teams we may struggle against and have struggled against in the big stage if things go against us. The Knights are 12th. So, unless the Knights bring their A-game the Eels will have the upper hand in the middle to lay the platform for the edges to attack and opportunities around the middle.
Of particular note is the Knights' right edge - the worst in the competition at present. Yes, you heard it. Worst than ours, which is still in the top-8 for worst. That comes against our left edge that is still ranked as of the best, overall (4th).
Errors are still high - Last week's Souths game of 11 is about par. Souths first try off a scrum following Gutho's handling error is an example of that. Errors or low completions are not an issue if you can defend. If you play an expansive game you're probably going to get an increase in errors. The biggest issue here is we often don't defend our errors and there are many missed opportunities caused by them, especially in good field position.
The half-time score could reveal who is likely to win. Both teams tend to lose when behind at half-time and win when they're ahead.
Bottom Line: The Calm Before The Storm
This is a danger game because it's one we should win. Newcastle are depleted and have been unconvincing for a bulk of the year - even more than us. The advantage is with us. Even if we are "flat track bullies".
And we need to win to regain some confidence and inner belief.
Ideally, we win well and in style with a 'zero' next to Newcastle practising some defensive fortitude against the Knights' pop-gun attack (14th) and mediocre defence (9th). Without Ponga, Klemmer, Daniel Safiti, Frizell, and Pearce, the Eels should have too much strike power and class. On paper. Should. However, should we lose there is a danger we'll slip further into a deeper abyss waiting to be put out of our misery.
The next few games are against the Tigers and Dogs, before the first on-coming litmus test against the Panthers in round 16.
Following that, a few weeks later, we face a horrific category-five storm before the finals between rounds 19 to 25. The Raiders (R19), Roosters (R20), Souths (R21), Manly (R22), Storm (R24), and Panthers (R25).
One wonders how that horror-stretch will affect our final's campaign? Will we be exhausted? Primed or down and out for the count?
Back to the present. If we don't fix our defensive and mental issues over the next few weeks it could be curtains for us when facing extreme adversity. We may be at the half-way mark but there isn't a lot of time left before we face the Horror. Essentially, it's boom or bust time. Time is running out fast.
PS: Our illustrious Professor Daz, known as Mr Razzle-Dazzle in the hip-hop world will be back writing next week's preview - as it's his turn. He's also let me know he's interested in a free consultation with my plastic surgeon for some additional work on some critical organs.