Newcastle Knights v Parramatta Eels
McDonald Jones Stadium – Friday, 7.55pm
In what should have been the most prosperous period of their season, a woeful record during the representative rounds has the Knights on the precipice of falling out of finals contention completely.
Drawn a fortuitous run of home games and byes with minimal Origin impact following a tough opening to 2018, a horror injury run combined with lapses throughout matches has resulted in the impressive form shown during the opening weeks falling by the wayside.
Brought on by former New South Wales halfback Mitchell Pearce sustaining a torn bicep against Wests Tigers in Tamworth, initial concerns were briefly allayed by a last-gasp victory against Manly before an onslaught of losses resulted in the Novocastrians managing a single win from their next eight matches. With the deflating reality confronting Nathan Brown and Newcastle supporters present in the statistics; for all the optimism surrounding junior development and an active off-season recruitment drive, between Rounds 9 through 16 the Knights have performed no better than last season in their win/loss ratio.
Dropping from sixth to sit four wins outside the top eight, the return of Pearce will add to the occasion for Newcastle supporters afforded their first Friday night primetime appearance since Round 20, 2014. Dismissed by commercial broadcasters as a result of poor performances and preferential treatment to Brisbane and Sydney-based clubs, the opportunity to showcase the development made since their last home appearance on Free-to-Air television two years ago against South Sydney should serve as a gauge of where the Knights sit heading into the closing rounds of 2018.
In addition to Pearce’s return at halfback, fan favourites Daniel Saifiti and Nathan Ross will make their returns from injury after spending the past month on the sidelines, while in the absence of Kalyn Ponga, Bulldogs-bound fullback Nick Meaney will make his NRL debut in the number one jersey.
In a season full of devastating lows, the heartbreak of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against St. George Illawarra a fortnight ago was the hardest loss for Parramatta supporters to take so far.
Widely expected to be meek fodder for the premiership heavyweights, the form shown to lead the Dragons by ten points inside the final minutes should give coach Brad Arthur confidence of further improvement, but with the Eels managing just three wins over the first two-thirds of 2018, the challenge of remaining optimistic in the face of constant heartache will be as much as mental obstacle as a physical one.
Enduring a despondent loss to the Knights prior to the first State of Origin fixture, the Eels have bounced back in their subsequent three outings by accounting for a woeful North Queensland side in Darwin, along with competitive showings against the top of the table Rabbitohs and Dragons. While quantitative triumphs have been hard to come by for much of 2018, improved attacking proficiency and defensive resolve – with the exception of a poor period either side of halftime against South Sydney – suggests that with an ounce of luck the effort produced is capable of bearing victories over the final eight weeks of the season.
Returning to Newcastle in search of a third consecutive win at McDonald Jones Stadium following narrow victories in 2015-16, coach Brad Arthur has made one change from the side beaten in Wollongong with Tepai Moeroa returning from suspension in place of Will Smith, while Corey Norman will line up for his 100th game for the club after joining from Brisbane back in 2014.
- Newcastle have won 9 of the past 11 meetings against Parramatta, however the Eels have emerged with two competition points in the two most recent fixtures held at McDonald Jones Stadium.
- Both teams have managed a single win over the past eight rounds.
- Since the last meeting between the two clubs in Round 13 at ANZ Stadium, the Knights have lost all three matches by increasing margins, while the Eels have produced much-improved form to score more points than their combined total during the opening six rounds of 2018.
Personal Duel – Mitchell Pearce v Jarryd Hayne
As two of the most acclaimed and equally maligned players of the NRL era, the pressure upon Mitchell Pearce and Jarryd Hayne to perform will be present from the opening whistle on Friday night with the veteran duo endeavouring to finish 2018 with a bang for their respective clubs.
Returning from a pectoral injury that threatened to sideline the star recruit for the remainder of the year just as his class was beginning to elevate the young Novocastrians into finals contenders, Pearce will be fully aware of the stakes at play in order for the Knights to remain in touch with the widening top eight gap. Experiencing very few injuries throughout his career and none that have been as extensive during the course of a season, the former Roosters playmaker will be under a wealth of expectations in a match that shapes as a make or break for Newcastle’s season following a horror losing streak that has emerged in his absence.
Going from the most sought player in the NRL to a rugby league pariah in the blink of an eye, Hayne will be eager to prove his class following an injury disrupted return to Parramatta. With eight matches left to prove his worth to potential suitors, the off-contract multi-code representative has shown touches of quality in recent weeks having recovered from a swath of injuries, but with a perceived stigma of inconsistent form and a difficult personality for coaches to contend with, the chances of large-scale interest from rival clubs appears to be limited. Experiencing a run of good fortune against the Knights throughout his career, the 30-year-old outside back will be hopeful of replicating his four try haul in the corresponding fixture 12 years ago.
Regarded as key figures for the fortunes of both clubs heading into 2018, the return of Pearce is widely expected to lift the Knights into the winner’s circle, however the undeniable talent of the Parramatta star could materialise on Friday in the form of the iconic ‘Hayne Plane’.
The potential for a catastrophic implosion brought on by the Knights expecting Mitchell Pearce to single-handedly solve their troubles is a very real fear for a side teetering on the edge of squandering a strong start to 2018. With Parramatta expected to do very little but capable of surprising the home faithful, the importance of Friday night should see Newcastle come away with two points in a tentative performance.