As the Eels head to Darwin to play the last of their four home games (of the current Northern Territory Government agreement) at TIO Stadium, one can’t help but think of the impressive track record we’ve established in the mid-north.
Sixties post ‘The Spotlight: The Territory Eels’ focused on the magnificent partnership we’ve developed with the NT, and a large part of that is because to date, we remain undefeated in the red centre of Australia.
Buoyed by the return of their Captain, Jonathan Thurston, tonight we’ll be facing a considerably stronger North Queensland Cowboys side than that of which we dominated 26-6 in Townsville a mere 6 weeks ago and ultimately, our toughest opposition in the Northern Territory since this partnership commenced in 2014. Additional to JT’s inclusion is those of hooker, Jake Granville, and fullback, Lachlan Coote, who were both notable absentees from our previous encounter.
The Eels also welcome back Corey Norman after he’s missed the last month of football, which will afford him his first opportunity to combine with new Eels half, Mitchell Moses.
With the temperature due to be in the mid 20s, it sets the stage for a thrilling and fast paced, attack orientated game – just the style that suits the Cowboys, particularly with their main man back – but the ruck battle will determine just how well they do this.
In our round 9 victory over the Cowboys, we managed the North Queensland forwards with absolute diligence. Tepai Moeroa was great early, making some headway with his runs, but more importantly with his defence. Both he and Beau Scott limited Jason Taumalolo to his lowest output game of the year, preventing him from getting any real true roll on, which limited a kicking-game-less Cowboys to next to know field position. For anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of a strong kicking game in the NRL (or in the Eels case, why we recruited Mitchell Moses) look no further than this game.
Our ability to come away with a victory today will largely depend on how well we can replicate the forwards efforts produced in Townsville, but it won’t be the sole reason if we win. There are some talented footballers in this North Queensland team that we will have counteract. So with that said, let’s look at who we have to stop this evening.
Lachlan Coote: The Cowboys gain so much with having Coote in their side and while he may have the one on his back, like many fullbacks running around these days, he should probably have the 6 on it instead. Coote brings to the Cowboys an element that was strongly missing from their game in our last fixture – a solid kicking option. For any of you at home who watch many of the Cowboys games, you’ll notice that Coote takes a lot of the clearing kicks. His ability to find space in behind the back three or to clear for the Cowboys after a limited metres set is phenomenal. However, despite how good this facet of his game is, he always manages a kicking error per game. On top of this, over the last 18 months he has struggled under the high-ball. That tells me one thing – you pressure this man and he feels it. If I was Mitchell Moses tonight, I’d be strapping on my spiral bomb boots and launching them the right in-between Lachlan Coote and Kyle Felt. We can either force the point home with field position or force an error.
Michael Morgan: This man has started to find some form that was alluding him in our most previous encounter. Morgan showed in that game when he, as majority of NRL halves would, struggled when he was the sole focal point of their attacking structure. The return of Coote and Granville has coincided with him finding some form and putting in some real dominant displays of late. With his partner in crime, Thurston, now back, look an even more complete performance in his game in the coming weeks. We showed that when under pressure from a fast moving defensive line that Morgan is susceptible to picking the wrong option and making errors. This is a tactic we will have to utilize once again if we are to keep the North Queensland five-eighth at bay. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, this man still posses one of the strongest running games going around. A dummy and a fend can see this man break even the most resolute defensive line, so we better be prepared not to allow this guy to skip on our outside.
Jonathan Thurston: Is it just me or do all the big name players seem to return just in time to take on the Eels? (Even Milford went down yesterday and is expected to be out – his expected return game? The Eels in round 21 of course.) We all know how brilliant and dominant JT can be. His ability to produce the exact play his team needs in any given moment is only rivalled by that of his fellow spine team mates in both his state and national side. His long kicking game will help give the Cowboys territorial advantage that they sorely missed in our previous encounter, while his general presence will provide his team mates a lot of confidence and his pass selection will provide North Queenslands the attacking structure and fluidity they’ve become accustomed to. In recent seasons (when playing in Sydney) the Eels have become experts at pressuring this man and limiting his impact on the game. It’s been focused around strong line speed both on him and the players immediately either side of him. It’s by no means the complete and only approach to taking JT out of the game, but it sure helps a lot. Nathan Brown, Beau Scott, Kenny Edwards, Manu Ma’u – you know what to do.
Jake Granville: Our marker defence and wrestle in the tackle will have to be on point tonight, for this man is the king of splitting markers and turning a quick play-the-ball into a territorial and even a point-scoring advantage. As we know, he doesn’t play the full 80 minutes, so if we can keep him busy the other side of the ball, we won’t have to be as concerned about his running game. His service to his playmakers is fantastic, providing them time to make decisions, while he gets his forwards coming onto the ball better than any man on their roster. If we dominate the play-the-ball we can take him out of the game.
Coen Hess: I still can’t believe how close we were to securing this guy, alas he is in another teams colours and our enemy this evening. He has been in fine try scoring form and just form in general. During the week his name has been lobbied for Queensland Origin selection, and while publically he may have stated he doesn’t believe he’s ready, don’t for a second think he won’t be ready for a big one tonight to help push his claims further. A fantastic edge runner who can muscle his way over even the best defensive forwards, Hess is a massive threat that we will have to manage. Whether it be a short ball at the line or being used as a decoy runner, Hess provides his team the ability to develop momentum through either his carries or creating space either side of him, due to the amount of defenders he attracts. I hope Manu is ready for a big one when this man enters the frame.
Gavin Cooper: Won’t this guy be happy that JT is back? Whether it be running a good line, providing the link play, a strong kick chase or just making his tackles, Gavin Cooper gets the job done and is a vital cog in the North Queensland structure. Given some of the struggles of our right edge defensively and the return of his friend Jonathan Thurston, Gavin Cooper may just be the man to give us some grief on the back of some well-timed JT passes. Ball-and-all tackles on this man please!
Jason Taumalolo: In our most previous match we limited this guy to his least effective output of the season. Here’s to hoping our middle third can replicate their efforts from last time, because we will need to remove his go-forward as much as possible to win the territory battle (pun intended) and just like last time he will be without his friend, Matt Scott, to help him lay that platform. The pressure will remain on him to be the leader and metre eater in the middle third, and just like last time, that will bode well for our Eels forwards. We can pressure him and gang tackle him (enter Tepai Moeroa). Nathan Brown, Suaia Matagi and Kaysa Pritchard can also exploit is lateral movement with their feet, and we can tire this big guy out. We take him out of the middle contest and pressure Thurston’s kicking game, and we take the Cowboys.
Like many Eels fans last week, with our backs against the wall, we somehow found a way to win a game we ultimately shouldn’t have. It’s those victories that are often cited as character and season defining for sides, and I hope it is just that for ours. However, we can’t simply rest on our laurels and it will take a massive effort to get over the top of the Cowboys tonight.
Even though this is technically a home game, one would expect that the Cowboys will enjoy more away support than any of our other opponents in the Territory have before, and a rather neutral crowd will be in attendance. It’s why getting away to a great start is so integral. We’ve shown before this year, that when we start well, we rarely, if ever go down. The half-time, full-time lead stats support this. However, this will only happen if we roll up our sleeves.
The return of Corey Norman will gives us a first look at him and Moses combining together, pushing King Gutho out to right centre. Personally, I couldn’t be happier with my namesake moving out to right centre. I think his presence there will help stiffen up the right edge defensively and remove a lot of the problems we’ve been experiencing out there up until this point in time. It will also mean that we get to have two genuine kicking options available in an NRL game for the first time this year, when the territory aspect of this game is so integral to the winner it’s a huge boost for our mighty eels!
An interesting stat I’ll be keeping an eye on this evening is how many times each team is tackled inside their opposition 20 metres zone. I think that the team who racks up the most numbers here will likely be the side that racks up the most numbers on the scoreboard, because pending penalties, I think this is a game that will largely be played between each team’s twenty metre line.
With both sides having the main component of their attacking weapons available for this clash, one would think that they will each like to play as direct and at the line as possible. It is for this reason that establishing territorial advantage through both carries and kicking game will be so important, for the side that plays inside their opposites 20 metre zone the most, will likely score points off when having multiple running options available to their pass selectors.
Today the winner of the territory, will win the Territory.
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images