"There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you", says Pep Guardiola one of the world's most respected football coaches. And the Eels are still waiting. Five long years to taste victory over the Tricolours. To end their worst run in 21 years against the Roosters.
The Roosters, along with the Storm, have been the most successful teams this century. They look for you with and without the ball.
Essentially, both the Eels and walking-wounded Roosters have plenty to prove in 2021. Which one is the real deal? Are either? Round 9 is a litmus test for both.
Friday, 7th May, 2021, Bankwest Stadium, 7.55pm.
1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo (L) 3. Tom Opacic (L) 4. Marata Niukore (R) 5. Blake Ferguson (R) 6. Dylan Brown (R) 7. Mitchell Moses (L) 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Isaiah Papali’i (L) 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown (TBC and could be a late out) 14. Oregon Kaufusi 15. Shaun Lane 16. Haze Dunster 17. Bryce Cartwright 18. Joey Lussick 19. Keegan Hipgrave 20. Wiremu Greig 21. Jordan Rankin
Head Coach: Brad Arthur
1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou (L) 3. Josh Morris (L) 4. Joseph Manu (R) 5. Matt Ikuvalu (R) 6. Drew Hutchison (L) 7. Sam Walker (R, but floats either side) 8. Isaac Liu 9. Ben Marschke 10. Siosiua Taukeiaho 11. Angus Crichton (L) 12. Nat Butcher (R) 13. Victor Radley 14. Adam Keighran 15. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 16. Fletcher Baker 17. Daniel Suluka-Fifita 18. Egan Butcher 19. Naufahu Whyte 20. Lachlan Lam 21. Joseph Suaalii
Head Coach: Trent Robinson
It's Manu's 100th game and the Roosters won't be willing to lose this one.
Referee: Matt Cecchin. The Eels have 40% winning record under him, winning only 2 from the last 9, and haven't played under him since 2019.
In the last meet, on a Saturday night in round 6 last year, also at Bankwest, the Eels were in the hunt in the first half before being put to the sword in second half to lose 24-10.
This followed the same script as years gone by, where the Roosters blew us off the park in the second half winning by around 20 points on average over the last 8 years.
Eels' have been the Roosters' hen for some time
The Eels last win against the Roosters was also on a Friday night back in round 18, 2016, five years ago. It was also under referee Matt Cecchin. Are the stars aligning?
King Gutho, the Eels most capped player in this squad, was playing at centre then and also scored the match winning try in the 74th minute. He is the sole survivor of that team that was then led by hardman Beau Scott. However, the Roosters finished 15th that year, a year they weren't up to their usual standards.
Though the Eels lost the last game against the Roosters at Bankwest, they have won 20 from 27 games in total here.
Additionally, the Eels also lost the last game they played at Bankwest against the Saints in round 5.
Importantly, they have never lost two successive games at Bankwest. Not yet.
Notably, in 13 years the Eels have never beaten the Roosters outside Parramatta (or Pirtek) Stadium - and only 3 times from 14 games.
Since 2014, under Arthur's reign, the Eels only 2 wins were at Parramatta (Pirtek) Stadium and only won by 2 and 4 points.
Eels v Dogs: Eels did enough, but some old vulnerabilities and bad habits resurface
The Eels disposed of the Dogs as expected 32-10 which was pleasing as the Dogs have troubled the Eels. The Eels didn't play their best but still got the result. Good teams need to do that.
And King Gutho was outstanding. Again.
Despite this, some bad habits resurfaced:
- the Eels recorded 14-9 errors (foxstats) and were sloppy and switched off at times (especially during the second half) as they have during various games during the year, inviting the opposition back into the game. There's a lack of killer instinct at times.
- the Eels' cover defence can be sluggish to slide when its compressed or swtiching off leaving the edges badly exposed (we saw this in the Dog's second try Dallin Watene-Zelezniak).
- there are spaces around Mahoney that were exploited (we saw this with Dog's first try to Jake Averillo who was good enough to exploit the gap between Mahony and Dylan). Sure, Dylan misread the play trying to slid but the spaces around Mahoney (between he and the Browns or Paulo) have been exploited by various teams thoroughout the year (e.g. Sharks, Saints, Dogs).
Furthermore, in recent weeks the Eels' offloading game has reduced. Perhaps, to simplify the direct power game, reduce unnecessary errors, and practice selectivity?
Roosters v Knights: Walker's stellar rise and the injuries keep coming
The Roosters demolished the hapless Knights 38-4 in style.
As the leading try-scoring team in the competition, the Roosters played a very spirited and instinctive game. With a touch of the Harlem Globetrotters (15 offloads).
That's an attack very hard to defend against. And will pose issues for the Eels' defence, especially if it switches off and responds sluggishly. Something the Eels have proven capable of.
That is aided by the high quality of the Roosters' support play (no.1) and also the Eels. Both the Eels and Roosters play the direct, power running game making huge run metres (Eels no.1, Roosters no.4).
Against the Knights, the Roosters were very direct, aggressive and in your face. It's no surprise they were penalised 3-0 for being inside the 10m.
Once again, Walker starred with a try and 5 try assists (per foxstats).
Walker's star continues to rise exponentially, with senior players and leaders within the club in awe of his skill and courage, taking the reigns at such a young age. All 78kg.
However, the game dealt the Roosters a telling body blow with the loss of classy Collins and the 16 year veteran Morris. Both succumbing to ACL's.
It adds to a mind bobbling loss of experience at the Roosters in 2021, to exacerbate significant losses over the last few years such as Cronk, Mitchell and Aubo.
How many teams could remain a finals contender losing that much talent and experience?
It's a testament to the Roosters' resiliance, ability to develop talent, depth and their systems.
Spine attack and the enigma that is Dylan Brown
Dylan was error riddled and poor last week and probably below fans' expectations in 2021.
Dylan sits practically at the bottom of the five-eighth tree in the competition for tries (0), try assists (1), linebreak assists (0), try involvements (3). The top guys such as Luai and Cody Walker have 17-18 try involvements, despite the Panthers and Souths scoring less tries.
However, he makes the most tackles of any five eighth in the competition (average 29 per game according to Foxstats) and does a lot of unrewarded yet vital scrambling and cover defence.
Additionally, he also makes the most run metres per game from all five-eighth's along with Cameron Munster (87m per average per foxstats, just behind lock Connor Watson's 90m).
Despite, all that opportunity he's picked up average to reasonable returns all year: tackle bust (14), linebreaks (2) and sits 2nd for most five-eighth errors (behind Wighton). No surprises there.
So effectively, he's putting in the effort - running, covering and tackling and sometimes in support play - just not much else, recently.
The other thing is Dylan along with Moses and Waqa Blake are probably the fastest in the team with good acceleration (refer Telstra trackers). Is their speed being fully utilised?
From statistical perspective, the Eels have performed better with Dylan than when without him.
Perhaps some answers are found with the Godfather. Gus once noted that players "don't lose talent, they lose focus" or over-think their game, with their confidence and natural instinctive game suffering.
Or maybe he's not as instictively talented or motivated as we had hoped? He also tends to switch on and off. Whatever the case, it's an issue for Dylan, senior players and the coaching staff to resolve.
Being on the right hand side, Eels' lesser potent edge probably doesn't help and there's Dylan's role within the team to be considered.
As Professor Daz noted the Eels have an "ensemble" of playmakers - with their creativity spread out. According to foxstats Gutho has the leading try assists (9, off the back of the left edge), followed by Moses and Mahoney (7 each), Bryce Cartwright (3), Will Smith (2), Ferguson (2), and Dylan (1).
For the Roosters, they are more "top-heavy" probably due to injuries more than anything. Sam Walker is second for try assists with 12 (behind Panther Luai's 13) after just 5 games. The other Roosters key spine and other contributors are: Keary (7) who is now injured, Tedesco (4), Brett Morris (3) who worked wonders on the right edge and is also out, J Hutchinson (1), Friend (1), Verrils (1), Marschke (1).
So, if the Eels are able to limit Walker and Tedesco's prowess that may be the first step to victory.
In terms of try scoring locations, the Eels have the second best left edge attack and the Roosters have by far the best right edge attack, but the loss of Brett Morris will hurt.
Culture and 32: longest and second longest
Both Robbo and Arthur are both clubs' 32nd coaches, despite the Roosters being a foundation club with about 50 years more history.
Robbo is the Roosters' longest serving coach with 3 titles and a winning percentage (65.6%) only just shaded by the great Arthur Halloway (68.2%). Arthur is Eels' second longest serving coach (after Brian Smith) with a winning percentage around 51.4%. Both coaches have done an admirable job in 2021, hitherto.
Newcastle coach Adam O'Brien who had tutelage under Bellamy and Robinson described their differences:
"One’s a schnitzel and chips (Bellamy) and the other one’s fine dining (Robinson), but they’re both a great feed. One will wear you down until you just fall at their feet. Whereas the other will just get you with a sharp tactic."
Robinson is an impressive thinker and innovative coach who exposes his team to Tai Chi, Victor Frankl's "Search for Meaning" and has team sessions exploring Rupyard Kipling's "If", and the team went to Barcelona to seek inspiration from football champion Barcelona during the Messi-Pep Guardiola era.
If Robinson is "fine dining", Bellamy "schnitzel and chips" what's our Arthur? A good old-fashioned Aussie meat pie?
A feature of Robinson's coaching and Roosters' culture is seeking players who want to shine and express themselves in an egalitarian setting. It's something players have noted such as Fergo. Everyone has a voice. Robinson notes:
"You get respect when you walk through the door. You don’t have to earn it, you are given it. You can only lose that respect, you don’t have to gain it."
This is a perfect fit for young Walker, who beams:
"I love the ability to play my own brand of footy. Robbo gives me the confidence to go out on to the field and play my style. I’m not pinned down to one side or made into a robot. I can play free-flowing footy and go out and have fun. At this club I’m allowed to do it my way."
Keary also benefitted from the Roosters' culture realising his potential. He had struggled for a few years at Souths to find his way or best footy. Robbo helped inspire him and Keary admitted he never forgot Robbo's advice: ‘I want you to be yourself.’
Indeed, the Eels too, can be proud of the development seen in players such as Mahoney, Papali'i, Cartwright, Nuikore, Gutho, Nathan Brown, the resurgence of RCG, and Moses. It points to an improved culture. May it continue and further grow. To Awaken the Sleeping Giant. And roar.
Performances against top 8 and bottom 8 teams
Both teams have disposed of all bottom eight teams without loss, though the Roosters have run riot over bottom eight teams more ruthlessly and clinically than the Eels, scoring more and conceding less.
Also, the Roosters have won both of their top eight 8th-5th (but not top four) encounters with a comfortable margin, whilst the Eels lost against the Saints and were very dissappointing.
Also, the Eels defeated the high-flying top-four Storm, but the Roosters lost both encounters against genuine top-four teams (Souths, Storm) which raises question marks over the title credentials.
As an aside, I suppose there's an argument that the Eels have done better than what the table below suggests, since the Raiders and Sharks were top-eight teams, fleetingly, when we beat them and they have been finals' teams in recent years.
The Roosters battled against the Storm (R2) well in the firstt half arm wrestle, but Storm kept punching holes through the once impregnable Bondi wall on the edges and through the middle to overcome them 20-4. The Rabbits (R3) ran riot over them racing to a half time lead of 18-0 before the Roosters clawed back to lose by only 26-16. So there's sill plenty of character and spirit there and the Roosters are evolving at a rapid rate.
The Eels appear to have gone up a notch this year and are playing with more purpose, whilst the Roosters have been cruelled by injuries and retirements with almost a third of the top 30 squad decimated testing the club's depth and character. Nonetheless, the Roosters have played with skill, ruthlessness, and courage. An imposing opponent.
Both teams will be looking to play up tempo, power games in the middle and make plenty of metres and rely on great support play, instinctiveness and good execution. The clash of packs will be a sight to behold. And the kicking games of Walker and Moses in particular could prove pivotal.
The Roosters attack is sill a formidable force and their defence still flows and dances together as Robbo likes to say. The Eels attack is also showing signs of flourishing in 2021 after the poor second half of 2020. The attack is more direct, the power game is more effective, Mahoney has finally discovered his running game and attack, the additions of Cartwright and Papa that have added far more potency, whilse Moses has on the whole been collected. And there's King Gutho who just keeps going.
Our 229 points after 8 games is our second most in the NRL Era (1998 onwards), since 2002 (246), and even more than our 2001 juggernaut (183).
In essence, both teams are yet to prove themselves as genuine title contenders and this game will provide greater insights into the character of both teams.This is litmus test for both teams.
Perhaps, Moses is right and they will be the Eels' greatest test to date.
The Eels have shown the ability to switch off and play below par at times, often inviting the opposition back into the game, and the Roosters will come looking for us. They rarely let up.
For me, many questions remain. Are we even close to the Reel Deel? Do we go looking for teams and play with enough killer instinct? Will the Eels' Mr Hyde resurface? How far has our culture, riddled by a soft underbelly in the past, really changed?
We can't exist without hope.
PS: Professor Daz, my beatiful co-author, will be back writing the main piece next week with his wonderful witty Shakespearean style. He is also keen on co-authoring Snake and Frankie's end of year around-the-world travel adventures.