Parramatta Eels v Newcastle Knights
ANZ Stadium – Saturday, 7.35pm
There have been some stunning reversals of fortune whenever Parramatta and Newcastle have faced off against one another. In the 1997 finals series, the Eels established an 18-0 lead only to go down 28-20 at the end of 80 minutes. Few could have predicted the ambush Andrew Johns masterminded in the 2001 Grand Final against the red-hot minor premiers. Yet of all the unexpected results to play out between the two sides, you would have been hard-pressed to anticipate the decline experienced by Brad Arthur’s side from their pre-season showing in Maitland.
Leaving the highly fancied Knights shell-shocked with a six tries to one domination in a performance where Newcastle coach Nathan Brown declared the Eels to be one of 2018’s top sides, the position last season’s semi finalists find themselves in is unfathomable given the strength flexed early on.
Condemned in last position with just two wins from the first half of the season, the term ‘mathematical’ is the only hope the battling outfit have of featuring beyond Round 25, with their current form line giving no indication that the Blue and Golds have the ability to avoid losing more than two matches over the rest of the year.
Saddled with a draw that features return fixtures against the Dragons and Rabbitohs, an away trip to Melbourne and the futile prospect of playing in Townsville for Johnathan Thurston’s final home appearance, the Eels need to find a new sense of purpose over the second half of the season or else their current ladder standing will become their fate.
Despite zero Origin representation, the Eels have elected to use Bevan French ahead of Corey Norman at fullback, while the cellar dwellers could additionally be boosted by the late inclusion of incumbent player of the year Nathan Brown as they look to start Winter with a win.
There were always going to be difficult periods during the Knights rebuild, irrespective of the development of junior talent and recruitment of veterans. Having played against three of the top four teams over the past month, the winless run experienced by the Novocastrians has been disheartening for all involved, however for as many factors that contributed to last Sunday’s loss against the Cronulla, the simple truth is that the performance offered up was not up to the standards of any first grade team.
While the devastation of losing 62-0 two years ago could be understood due to a roster of players graded before their time, the excuses for the inept showing against the Sharks are unlikely to appease long-suffering supporters. Put bluntly, the resilience needed to stay in the fight was sorely lacking when the scoreboard blew out early in the second half.
For as critical as pundits have been on Newcastle in the wake of the 48-10 thrashing, the strongest and most immediate response available to Nathan Brown’s men will be a win on Saturday night against Parramatta.
Currently sitting in a position not that dissimilar from the side’s last finals appearance in 2013, a fair draw of largely home matches during the representative period has the potential to steady the ship for the Knights before Mitchell Pearce returns from injury. However should the current trend of losses continue, the unwarranted chorus of naysayers calling for Nathan Brown’s head will likely grow.
Few would question the frustrations borne out of last week’s loss, but given the improvements made by the Brown regime over the past 24 months, had Newcastle supporters been offered a 5/12 start to 2018 prior to the season commencement, the current sentiment would almost certainly not be playing out.
With the Knights needing a win to reduce internal pressure and ease supporter frustrations, the cause won’t be made any easier given the one-match suspension sustained by star front rower Herman Ese’ese, while as a result of the Cronulla debacle, Cory Denniss will play his first game in the NRL since 2016 having been preferred ahead of injured fan favourite Nathan Ross.
- Saturday will mark the 50th meeting between the two sides since Newcastle contested their first premiership match against Parramatta back in 1988. Over the course of 30 years, the Knights hold a narrow lead in all fixtures with 27 wins, 21 losses and 1 draw.
- The Knights have won eight of the ten clashes played since 2010 by a combined margin of 229 to 114. Excluding two matches where the Knights won by 30 points or more, the average winning margin in matches is just six points.
- In the two matches Parramatta have won against Newcastle this decade, the Eels have come from behind at halftime to claim narrow victories.
Personal Duel – Clinton Gutherson v Connor Watson
Capable of playing a number of positions, the form shown by Clinton Gutherson and Connor Watson has been somewhat indicative of the performances of their teams in 2018.
Spending the first five weeks on the sidelines with injury, the newly appointed co-captain provided an instant lift for the Eels in helping last year’s contenders to their first wins of the season, but much like the side as a whole, what worked so effectively throughout 2017 has failed to eventuate over the first half of the year. Switched into the halves by coach Brad Arthur in an effort to increase his involvement, the former Manly young gun has been among Parramatta’s better performers in recent weeks, but the wins sought have proved to be elusive.
Moving from the Roosters in an effort to establish himself as a starting player, Watson’s start to his time in the Hunter was less than hoped for after sustaining a shoulder injury that threatened to derail his entire season. Fortunately making it back onto the park to correspond with Mitchell Pearce’s long-term absence, the Country Origin utility has struggled in taking asserting control over the Knights as part of inconsistent halfback pairings, but at his best and playing behind a dominant forward pack, the running game boasted has drawn comparisons to Newcastle legend Kurt Gidley.
Rated among the best up-and-coming players in the league, both Gutherson and Watson loom as pivotal players in breaking the losing runs that have left the Eels and Knights despondent over the past month.
The only goals the Eels are capable of realistically achieving for the remainder of 2018 are getting off the bottom of the ladder and causing a thorn in the side of teams aspiring for greater things. Having been humiliated last week, the Knights have no shortage of motivation to come away with two points. With points often at a premium in contests between the two sides, expect the visitors to finish ahead on the scoreboard given the stakes on offer.