“Winning is a habit” and “Confidence is contagious”, marks Lombardi, the legendary Packers’ coach.
The Eels are certainly not short of both this year. And our reputation as soft-bellied champions is slowly eroding away, game by game, on the back of more toughness, belief and teamwork. Running hard, tackling hard, kicking better, playing smarter. Pride in defence; not letting your team-mates down. The simple things have been the bedrock of our resurgence.
Both the Knights and us are looking like serious football teams this year so this game could be intense, and we’ve also struggled against the Knights. Both boast big, tough and skilful packs and the ability to score points, with talented edges and spines, so it could be another cracker of a game.
This is shaping up as the match of the round. It’s also a dangerous game for us. It’s our first bonafide away game against an inform top four team of the year. In last year’s corresponding round seven clash, at this venue, the Knights tore our middle to shreds. So, we'll learn a little more about the team's toughness this week.
Both teams aren’t at full-strength, through injuries. Moses, our marquee-playmaker who hasn’t hit the heights of last year, so far, is still missing and could be for longer than anticipated. Last week, our spine stepped up in Moses’ absence. We’re also missing rising hard-running Kaufusi, Stone and Evans is still out. Fortunately, we welcome back spiritual warrior Nathan Brown to stiffen the middle and cover defence. The Knights are missing even more regulars: new recruit Jayden Brailey, Mitch Barnett, Connor Watson, Edrick Lee, Sione Mata’utia, Tim Glasby. That’s a fair chunk of salary cap sitting on the sidelines. The biggest question in relation to team changes for Eels’ fans is whether debutant Stefano Utoikamanu lives up to the hype and Tigers' pay cheque, coming off the bench?
Two high-flying Batesmans’ Bay products cross paths
This game marks the clash of Batemans Bay products Adam O'Brien and Brad Arthur, squaring off each other for the first time in the NRL. Both were also Storm-breed coaches under Craig Bellamy.
Both are in a purple patch. The well-regarded O’Brien has had a good start to his NRL career as a head coach (winning 63%, 5 of 8). Tough-chinned Arthur has hit a high from 2019 onwards (65.6%, winning 21 of 32). That's well above his six-year career average, traversing through some of the darkest moments in the Eels’ history (49.4%, winning 81/166 overall). In current form, both aren’t far off a Bellamy like Storm-record (68.3%). Arthur in particular, deserves praise for getting off the canvas, owning up to mistakes, and having the team play for each other. Consistently. A rare sight over the last three decades.
Are we finally seeing the start of a longer-term cultural rejuvenation of both clubs?
Winning habits: The first Eels’ team to remain first for first eight
This is the first time in our seventy four year history we have been at the top of the ladder throughout the first eight rounds.
This team has outdone our greatest teams including our premiership winning teams of the 1980s, the 2001 team ,or quality teams of the late 1970s. But, a word of warning: it was round nine last year, our vulnerabilities were exposed badly by the Storm in their demolition job. Let's hope we've really learnt our lessons, away from home.
Knights, yet another team we have struggled against; change the record-player?
History has a sad face, here. We have won just 2 of the last 9 here, over the last decade, since 2010; and only three times overall.
The Knights have beaten us in the last two encounters here, including R7, last year, where they carved us through the middle, to win 14-28 with the score flattering us, somewhat.
Go back further and it doesn’t get much better. In the last three decades, since 1988, the Eels have managed to win just 8 of 27 games (losing 71%) of matches at this location.
The Eels last won at this ground four years ago, 20-18, in R12,2016. There's only three survivors from that Eels team on show this week: Gutherson, Gower and Takairangi. We also won the last encounter, in R21 last year, but that was at Bankwest, winning 20-14 in a typically close game between these two sides. Don't mention the last game of 2001.
Nonetheless, in recent weeks we’ve vanquished Raiders, Cowboys, too, with whom we’ve had similar poor records against often-boogey-teams. So why not do it again. The difference with this game though, is: the opposition is in some form, top four, and it’s a bona-fide away game. Last year, we didn’t beat a single top eight team, away. This could be our second hardest challenge after the Roosters' loss, assuming the Knights turn up. Though, generally we're a better day team on a dry track.
Sutton: never done an Eels-Knights game, don't expect favours
Incredibly, he’s never refereed an Eels Knights game, despite an eleven year NRL career, since 2009. If history is anything to go by, we shouldn’t expect too many favours from this whistleblower, away. He has a history of home teams winning a lion’s share of games. Perhaps, it’s shear co-incidence.
Not much middle ground between these two: majority are close games; 8 or less
64% of games (9 games from 14) , over the last 10 years, since 2010 have been decided by 8 points or less. Almost half of those were decided by two points (4 games). 20% were there all 3 blowout scores between 26-48 points (3 games) and 14% were moderate losses between 14-19 points (2 games).
In the last ten years, since 2010 we've never between the Knights by more than six points.
We now have the edge, statistically
This year, we have the equal best defence with Roosters, in terms of tries conceded (both conceding 15 tries each). The Knights are equal 6th (21 tries equal with Manly).
We have the equal second best attack (equal with the Tigers, Sharks) scoring 33 tries after the Roosters (37). The Knights have scored one less try than the Eels (same as Cowboys), so they’re not far off.
We boast plenty of firepower in attack making the most runs metres, tackle busts, post contract metres and offloads in the competition.
Our left-edge is on fire, but the Knights have the most prolific left attack
Sivo, Jennings, Lane, Dylan, with Gutho were and our entire left edge has been our most potent strike weapon last week and have been our most potent weapon, and the third most potent in the NRL, in terms of tries scored.
Whilst Sivo went on a rampage last week with four tries, equalling Semi’s devasting best, just one short of Jamie Lyon’s 2003 record to celebrate Gutherson’s 100th, Ferguson’s try drought continues.
It's now his in his worst ever start to a season in his eleven year career' worse than his debut year of 2009 with the struggling Sharks. Can he score this week, break the consecutive ducks? Even long-term married coupled score more often. Even Eels debutant Jai Field managed to score in Ferguson’s right-hand corner. Still, Ferguson is doing his job racking up the hard metres; he ran for over 200m last week.
Meanwhile, if our right edge attack ever switch on, consistently, they also have the potential to be potent.There’s some talent and speed there in Waqa, Ferguson, Matterson, and now Field. Dylan was offering effective cross kicks that Waqa scored one try off, assisted Field’s try and could have scored another. With the Knights left-edge their weakest defensively this week could see some more tries out that way, and even one for veteran drought-stricken right-winger.
Defensively, our troubled right side defence (7th worst): Waqa, Fergo, Matterson, Field, need to be ready and work in unison as it’s up against the Knights LHS attack, the most potent in the competition, scoring the most tries. Ponga, Fitzgibbon, Best, Pearce and his kicking game, with Mann often sniffing around in support and kick chasing. Promising rookie Tex Hoy may find himself on the end of that lucrative left edge. Last week our right edge only leaked one try, so that’s an improvement. Gutherson also seems to be more focused on working the right side defence in back play as well. With the Nathan Brown back we have a little bit of extra back up security in cover. However, one caveat is, in the last few weeks the Knights left hand side and Ponga in particular haven’t been as effective; going off the boil, somewhat. It’s co-incided with Ponga spending more time on the right edge.
The battle of the middle; the engine room war, metre eaters and offload kings
Last time at this ground, in the corresponding R7 game last year, the Knights busted us up the middle where we were one of the worst defensively in the competition. This year our middle is equal best defensively with the Roosters and the Storm (conceding only one try).
This year, the tables have turned with the Knights allowing more tries through their middle than us, hitherto. Cherry-Evans and Manly exploited that and found some space when they tired, so there could be opportunities if we are on the money. Dylan, Field, Gutherson, Reed and perhaps even Nathan Brown could be canditates for creating opportunities. We’ll need to be on guard for the wily McCullough though.
The four starting props in this game are some of premier in form props in the competition.
They all feature in the top few dozen metre eaters in the NRL: Klemmer (18th, 176m average per game), Saifti (170m, 22nd), Paulo (170m, 23rd), RCG (158m, 32nd). Collectively all four make almost 700m between them. Those starting gladiators in the middle, along with Nathan Brown, and rising Nuikore helping, make the heavy metres under heavy-fire.
Both engine rooms are more than just bash and bargers, boasting plenty of skill.
Junior sits as king of offloads with 26, leading the competition. Klemmer is second with 25. Matterson is then third with 22. Nathan Brown is another prolific offloader and was running straight and hard before his suspension. We should see some good second phase play originating from these warriors.
Naturally, how both teams manage the bench, potentially weakening the middle when the starters are off, will be critical.
The Knights’ spine boast more experience, which could prove critical.
If new recruit Andrew McCullough weren’t playing last week, the Knights mightn’t have scraped through against Manly by two. He scored a clever try, saved one, made 50 tackles missing inly three, and then cleaned up a dangerous situation at the death. He’s still a clever and under-rated influence. He’s a steadying influence and it should be a good battle with Reed.
Along with McCullough, Pearce is the most experienced of both spines. Pearce kicked 564m last week, incredibly. Ponga also kicked 151m. We need to pressure Pearce their key game manager.
In Moses’ absence The King and Dylan stepped up as our chief playmakers. Gutherson stepped up, not only kicking goals from the sideline to make Daryl Halligan proud, and Moses blush. He ran almost 250m, made 3 linebreaks assists, 1 linebreak, 3 try assists and 7 tackle busts, ran 45m from dummy half (the most of anyone) and had almost 100m in post contact metres. Mind-boggling numbers. Dylan kicking a year high 348m, more tripling a typical game from him in the past. He was also dangerous, and had 3 try assists, 1 linebreak assist, 3 tackle busts and ran 121m. Meanwhile, debutant Field was outstanding in his first outing, scoring a try and making 9 tackle busts, the most in the team.
The battle in the middle, the edges and also the spines should be intriguing.
If the game was played on paper, statistically, we win. But, the Knights have hurt us on many occasions.
Nonetheless, this year, we’re tougher and more resilient, our defence is hungrier with more pride. And we’ve probably a rung above the Knights, as one of top three contenders between Storm and the Roosters, right now. Furthermore, the Knights can switch off, like they did against the Cowboys a few weeks ago to get belted in the first half. O’Brien put that down to complacency. And It’s unlikely the Knights will be complacent for this game especially in front of their own crowd. Assuming, they show up, it's likely to be another cracker.
Will we maintain our winning ways against quality top-eight opposition, away from home, and keep turning up for each other, or will we drop the ball on this one?