Round 23: Eels v Knights preview - 2017 Round 23
Parramatta chase a magnificent seventh straight victory
It's official. After a seven-year absence, the Parramatta Eels are set to feature in the finals. Having experienced the depths of consecutive wooden spoons, inexplicable collapses, salary cap scandals and a revolving door of coaches, the Eels have assured themselves of a place in the top eight, but far from being content to simply make up the numbers, Brad Arthur's men loom as a genuine threat in the race towards the first Sunday in October. Riding high off the back of six consecutive wins, the Blue and Golds will be buoyant about their chances of extending their winning run to seven, while also celebrating the achievement of long-serving prop Tim Mannah, who is set to play his 200th game for Parramatta, becoming only the eighth player to achieve the feat. In the only change from the side that disposed of Canterbury last Thursday, Tepai Moeroa returns in the second row resulting in Frank Pritchard being relegated to an extended bench, while Bevan French will likely sit out the encounter with his place to be taken by Will Smith or Josh Hoffman.
It may have taken a touch under two years, but the Newcastle Knights can boast a run of successive victories heading into Friday's fixture after downing the Warriors 26-10 last Saturday. Reaping the benefits of Nathan Brown's philosophy, the Knights will head into the match up against their 2001 Grand Final combatants hoping to replicate the heroics of their predecessors and upset the highly fancied Eels in what will be the first meeting of the two sides at ANZ Stadium in 16 years. Holding an impressive record over the Eels in recent times with seven wins from the past nine clashes, the Novocastrians will be wary of their opponents having gone down by in the past two meetings. With cult hero Nathan Ross unlikely to feature for the rest of the season, departing Queensland star Dane Gagai shifts from the centres, while Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Joe Wardle both return to the backline. While their hopes of avoiding a third straight wooden spoon finish rest in part with the performances of the Wests Tigers over the last month of the regular season, the Knights will approach their remaining four matches with the unwavering commitment in a cause that has seen them defy the traditional understanding of what is expected of a side that has managed just five wins over the past two seasons.
Who to watch: It's no surprise to see the Eels confirm their place in the finals following the arrival of Mitchell Moses. In the ten matches he's played since transferring from the Tigers three months ago, the 22-year-old has produced an 80% success rate and turned the Eels from top eight hopefuls to premiership dark horses. Having shown glimpses of talent with the Western Suburbs-Balmain joint venture, Moses has become the player his reputation promised, while also proving to be the answer to the long-awaited answer to the Parramatta halfback jersey. Carrying the additional pressure of goal-kicking following the season-ending ACL tear sustained by Clinton Gutherson, Moses has taken the responsibility in his stride, missing just one conversion during his time in the Blue and Gold.
Given the control he has played with at times this season, you often have to remind yourself that Brock Lamb is still eligible for the Holden Cup. At 20-years-old, the Maitland junior has experienced more disappointment than most developing playmakers, but with a leading hand in the Knights long-awaited winning streak, opposition coaches would be taking note to highlight the threat posed by the Newcastle five-eighth. Coming up against his final NRL opposition, the young half will be fully aware of the minimal expectations upon his side against the Eels, but as the Knights and by extension himself have shown throughout 2017, the Knights remain focused on controlling their own fate.
My tip: If ever the Knights were to win in the closing rounds of 2017, the past fortnight was their best opportunity. Having claimed back-to-back wins, the Novocastrians will push their 2001 premiership opponents, but with an air of timing surrounding the Eels ascendance it's hard to see the home side going down. Eels by 7.