“I have come here to chew bubble gum, and kick ass. And I am all out of bubble gum,” said the Eels to the Newcastle Old Boys reunion last week (They Live). While a depleted Knights were little more than roadkill in the Eels’ 40-4 victory in Round 13, the question remains: false dawn, or confirmation of change? The dominant theory emerging from the commentariat this week is that nobody cares because State of Origin was on in Townsville. For shits and giggles, then, let us run with the minority theory on 1Eyedeel, that thrashing an understrength team after two dismal losses in a row might still be a new dawn. How? “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me shall” win, said Brad Arthur early last week. Seriously, that was him. Like the fable of Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:1-57), who a few folk claim was resurrected by Jesus because Lazarus was kind enough to believe in him, were the Eels reborn because they believed in Brad Arthur? Stretching the biblical overtones? Or not . . . ? Just as Jesus had said to Martha “your brother will rise again” (John 11: 23), Brad had said to fans “your team will rise again”. BRAD IS JESUS! As the prophet Eurythmics once said, “now would I say something that wasn’t true? I’m asking you, sugar, would I lie to you?” Welcome to Round 14.
Sunday 13 June, Spankwest Stadium, The Holy Land, 4:05pm (AEDT). Referee: Grant Atkins.
Eels: 1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 4. Waqa Blake 5. Haze Dunster 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Joey Lussick 10. Junior Paulo 11. Isaiah Papali'i 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown 14. Marata Niukore 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Bryce Cartwright 18. Will Smith 19. Blake Ferguson 20. Jakob Arthur 21. Nathaniel Roache
Head coach: Brad Messiah Arthur
Tigers, furball in their throat: 1. Daine Laurie 2. David Nofoaluma 3. Adam Doueihi 4. Tommy Talau 5. James Roberts 6. Moses Mbye 7. Luke Brooks 8. James Tamou 9. Jacob Liddle 10. Alex Twal 11. Luke Garner 12. Luciano Leilua 13. Joe Ofahengaue 14. Stefano Utoikamanu 15. Shawn Blore 16. Tom Amone 17. Alex Seyfarth 18. Michael Chee-Kam 19. Billy Walters 20. Kelma Tuilagi 21. Jake Simpkin
Head coach: Michael Madge Maguire
Notes: For the Eels, Lussick replaces the injured Mahoney, and Dunster holds his wing spot. Paulo may or may not back up from Origin. For the Tigers, Ofahengaue may or may not back up from Origin, and some dudes nobody has ever heard of are on their bench.
Observations from Last Week
Eels (vs Knights), 40-4 (W), 56% possession, 82% completion rate, 9 line breaks, 34 tackle breaks, 19 offloads, 21 missed tackles, 7 ineffective tackles, 13 errors, 3 penalties conceded, 2 ruck infringements.
Tigers (vs Panthers), 26-6 (W), 52% possession, 78% completion rate, 4 line breaks, 30 tackle breaks, 8 offloads, 23 missed tackles, 20 ineffective tackles, 10 errors, 11 penalties conceded, 5 ruck infringements.
Eels/Knights extended highlights HERE.
Knights/Panthers extended highlights HERE.
As we all know, Brad Arthur made some positional changes against the Knights. Dunster replaced Ferguson on the right wing, and Waqa Blake remained at his new left centre position (with Opacic lining up at right centre). Niukore started at prop (with Paulo on Origin duty). Dylan Brown returned from suspension to secure the right edge once more.
It is difficult to say, ‘it worked’, because the Knights were without their chief playmakers Pearce and Ponga, and otherwise fielded a makeshift team from spine to front row. So, how should we measure the Eels’ performance? Of course, it was pleasing to watch as the Eels ran in eight tries for the match and conceded just the single late try in the dying moments.
One way would be to compare the Eels to themselves. The Eels, compared to their own statistical rankings, improved in all categories (compare the observations above to the stats graph below): they completed better, made more line breaks, equalled their typical tackle breaks, exceeded their typical offload tally, reduced both their missed tackle and ineffective tackle counts, made less errors, and conceded less penalties and restarts.
One way to interpret this across-the-board improvement is that the Eels got back to the kind of game they had been playing before the Manly and Souths games. Yet this interpretation of the improved performance against the Knights raises the big question of what we all think of the Eels’ performances before the Manly/Souths debacles? HOE and I differ a little in how we think about the Eels’ performances before the Manly and Souths game. We suspect our small difference of opinion is probably reflected in reasonable differences amongst most Eels fans as well.
The nub of the issue is to what extent were there ‘warning signs’ going into that Round 11 game against Manly? The Eels entered Round 11 with a 9-1 record (a loss to the Dragons). The Eels were then spanked by both Manly and Rabbitohs. If we imagine a spectrum red, orange, green for ‘warning signs existed’, it is fair to say HOE was in the orange zone, and I was in the green zone. There are always the traumatised death riders perpetually in the red zone, but we can leave off discussion of their views to another time.
It is fair to say HOE was proved more right during Rounds 11 and 12 than was I.
As HOE showed in his lead-author Round 13 Preview of the Knights game, if we judged the Eels and Knights on their past month of footy leading into Round 13, both Eels and Knights were Bottom-of-the-8 ‘unconvincing performers’. But HOE also showed that the Eels’ defensive issues, including allowing too many line breaks through ineffective tackles (defined as failing to prevent promotion of the ball) and failing to use the sideline as a defender, are not of recent origin. The problems with the Eels’ compressed ruck defence were noted as far back as Matt Elliot’s 2019 pre-finals analysis of the Eels’ weaknesses. HOE also suggested the Eels continue to have a soft underbelly (lack of killer instinct, mental fade outs). In HOE’s analysis – an orange zone position on the ‘warning signs existed’ spectrum – the ‘conditions and circumstances’ to truly test the mettle of the Eels had not arisen until those Manly and Souths games, and when they did the Eels crumbled.
I was probably in the green zone of the ‘warning signs existed’ spectrum because I thought the Eels had shown they could overcome four glaring deficiencies apparent in late 2020. One, a poor record against either top teams or teams in form. The Eels had beaten Storm, Roosters, and Raiders, and when the Eels beat the Warriors and Sharks, those teams were in form (Top 8). Yes, some of those teams slid down the ladder. But when the Eels played all of them, they were Top 8. Two, the Eels had not (yet!) been exposed defensively down their right edge, as they were repeatedly in late 2020. Let’s face it, watching the Eels outside backs defend is a little like watching Psy sing Gangnam Style (you’re just, like, what the f**k?). But Waqa out and Niukore in, and DBrown shifting to the right side, had made a difference. Three, the Eels had been scoring points, indeed they scored 30+ in 5 games straight, addressing their poor attack from late-2020. Four, ultra-conservative play out of their own end, which in 2020 had seen better defensive units limit the Eels’ meter-eating game, had not changed. But the Eels managed big meters regardless by controlling territory and playing an up-tempo power game.
The Knights game could thus be scored against the orange and green zone concerns about ‘warning signs’. We did in fact see a little more variety out of the Eels when coming out of their own end. This was mostly one-pass off the ruck through Nathan Brown, but I think we can all imagine Cartwright possibly adding something here as well, because his passing game is very good. We also saw some quick shifts to the edges and wings from our own end, and Waqa Blake was able to remind people what a dangerous runner he can be. Imagine if Waqa could get involved from centre the way Tommy Turbo did in the Blues’ 50-6 SOO1 victory? The Eels also employed a sliding defence, on either side of the field. The sole try to the Knights, after the heat had left the game, was poor defence. Lane should have shifted to his left a lot more, and Waqa had the chance to cover tackle the try-scorer, but Waqa’s weakness in defence when he is unable to get his shoulder into a tackle was again on display. There were also a number of occasions when a better drilled and more skilled attacking team probably would have got on the outside of both wingers, though even on those occasions the Eels had in fact slid out more than usual and turned those ‘chances’ into high-risk plays rather than run-of the-mill through-the-hands attacking movements.
All up, my (green zone) interpretation of the Eels’ play against the Knights is that the Eels showed signs they had looked closely at the video of the Manly and Souths games and maybe BA decided to alter the playing style just a little? The true test, as we would all agree, will come first against Penrith in Round 16, where Penrith will have their Origin stars on board. To be honest, I am not confident the Eels can match it with Penrith, and much improvement is still needed. Then, after a bye in Round 17, the Eels embark on a torrid 8-game streak: Titans, Raiders, Rorters, Bunnies, Moanly, Cowboys, Stormy Daniels, and Panthers. That is 6/8 games against the current Top 8.
It would be rude and disrespectful of me, in a preview, to not say much about a Tigers team that defeated a severely depleted Panthers team (due to SOO1) in Round 13. Panthers lost 6-26.
Eels Always Tame the Tigers (EAT)
The Eels’ history against the Tigers suggests the Eels have the wood over the Tigers.
Indeed, the last time the Eels lost to the Tigers, in Round 4 of 2018, Madge was not coach, and the game was not at Bankwest.
Of course, all statistical trends have their hiccups. The Tigers are shooting for their first ‘three victories in a row’ since 2018. The last time the Tigers won 3 in a row was Rounds 4, 5 and 6 of 2018. Yes, you guessed it, it was Round 4 of 2018 that the Eels ran the Tigers into some form.
To get a sense of the difference between the Eels and whoever they are playing in any given week, we use nrl.com/stats to compare the statistics for attack and defence/discipline.
Attack: The smaller the number, the better the ranking (you succeed at doing these things better than others … 1st is good, 16th is bad). Also: green, yellow, light red, dark red is better to worse.
Defence & Discipline: The smaller the number, the worse the ranking (you are more guilty of these problems than others … 16th is good, 1st is bad). Also: green, yellow, light red, dark red is better to worse.
What do you see when you look over those stats above? Some interesting contrasts are that the Tigers seem to have a lot of movement in their attacking line (decoys and supports) but make more ground by offloads than line breaks. The Eels will need to focus on keeping their line intact and not hunting the Tigers all around the field as the Tigers prance about. Also, the Tigers can run themselves in to a hole via penalties, but as always, it would be unwise to wait for the opposition to gift you field position via such penalties. This might become especially important for the Eels, who are prone to general and handling errors, which would negate any field position the Tigers sacrifice by ill-discipline. The Tigers, most likely, might be eyeing the Eels’ relatively poor effective tackle ranking - given the Tigers rank 4th best for offloads – and aim to promote the ball at the line as much as possible.
What do you see when you look at the tries scored/conceded stats? The shining light for the Eels is the Eels’ left side attack versus the Tigers right side defence, and hopefully that DBrown returning, Fergo being dropped, and Waqa being switched, will mean the Eels’ right side defence will improve. Note the Eels’ left side attack gains potency with Waqa Blake shifting to the left side. Moses, Blake and Sivo all now lurk on the left side. Against the Knights, Waqa Blake had 16 runs for 170m, his best running output for quite some time. Note the Tigers concede down their left side as much as they do their right, so it helps that DBrown was obviously given a run boy run instruction from BA (21 runs for 195m). We can expect Dylan might again be instructed to test the defence via his running game.
Still, the stats suggest Sivo – the block of granite on wheels - will be the go-to man in attack, both against the Tigers but in general anyway.
The Bottom Line
With all the talk of the defensive frailties of the Eels’ right edge in the last few weeks, a cold, hard reality might have been forgotten. Just how bad the Eels can get may be determined by that right side defence, but how well the Eels perform is often tied directly to the fate of the mercurial Mitchell Moses. When Moses gets the balance right, between being the game manager being an X-Factor via his ball-running and attacking kicks, the Eels prosper.
If we return to the opening of this preview, where with tongue planted firmly in cheek I asked if the Eels’ fortunes had undergone a Lazarus-like revival through belief in Brad Arthur, the myth of Lazarus’ resurrection actually has an amazingly coincidental (or not?!) parallel with Mitchell MOSES. See, in John 11:1-57, at Verse 47, things take a turn for the worst. Jesus has resurrected Lazarus, and many Jews were impressed and believed in Him. “But some of them went away to the Pharisees,” and the Pharisees and the Chief Priests worried that if everyone believed in Him, less would believe in Them, and the Romans might come and take it all away. In Verse 53 we thus find “Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death”. It would be an unkind extension to suggest the Bush Coach brigade are like the Chief Priests, because all reasonable Eels fans should have some concerns about Brad Arthur taking so long to rectify the flaws in His outside-in defensive system and too-conservative play from their own end.
The Big Coincidence is that Moses went off against the Knights at Minute 55, with the Eels up 34-0, and the Eels spluttered their way through the next 25 minutes (6-4). And in Verse 55 of John 11, Jesus went “into the country near the wilderness”. Coincidence? Miracle?! MOSES IS JESUS! It’s not Brad, its Mitchell!!! Blip-blip blip-blip, blip-blip blip-blip, as the Prophet Homer Simpson once said.
In a new feature, HOE and I have secured unadulterated access to the players, for in-depth interviews about all their dark secrets and cubicle tricks. This week we asked the players to comment on some of the positional changes and tweaks to defensive and attacking structures.
Daz: Dylan, what did you say to Waqa Blake after he was shifted from your right-side to the left side?
Dylan: Well, I just thought, yeah nah bra, I will survive. So, I said to Waqa, at first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong. And I grew strong. And I learned how to get along.
Daz: Waqa, did Dylan’s comment make you feel like an Outkast?
Waqa: You think you've got it. Oh, you think you've got it. But got it just don't get it when there's nothin' at all.
Waqa: I. Have. Had. Enough. Of. You. (prize for guessing before clicking … HERE)
Daz: Brad, the team put on 40 but still some fans are not happy. What do you have to say to them?
Brad: [sniff] well, the effort was there, [sniff] and the boys are gladiators, really, so [sniff] ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
Daz: Thanks, Clint, for taking the time to chat. We know you are busy doing superhuman stuff at training. And look, I apologize for the biblical references where I alluded to maybe Brad or Mitch being the messiah. Clearly, you are The King. Any advice for these previews and for life-in-general?
Clint: Yeah, I thought of a bad religion limerick for you …
Hey, do what you want, but don't do it around me.
Idleness and dissipation breed apathy.
I sit on my ass all goddamn day.
A misanthropic anthropoid with nothing to
Say what you must, do all you can
Break all the fucking rules and
Go to hell with Superman and
Die like a champion, yeah hey!
Daz: yeah, thanks for that, King Gutho. Well just remember, in Brad and Mitchell we trust, for in Them, all will be revealed. They Live!