OFF TO A FLYER: Aku Uate, centre, and Dane Gagai, right, celebrate a try against Manly last year. Picture: Getty ImagesTHE Newcastle Knights are losing their edge. Their right edge, to be precise.
After shaping as one of the NRL’s most potent strike forces during the formative phase of their liaison, the combination of Dane Gagai and Akuila Uate has lost its venom.
It was just a few months ago, when Gagai and Uate scored five tries between them in Newcastle’s season-opening 42-10 thrashing of Wests Tigers, that they were being hailed as potentially Newcastle’s best right-side pairing since the glory days of Matt Gidley and his trio of speedy sidekicks, Darren Albert, Timana Tahu and Brian Carney.
Uate had already played for NSW and Australia when Gagai signed for the Knights midway through last season, unwanted by Brisbane and with just a handful of top-grade games to his name.
Immediately they clicked.
With fancy feet and a Gidley-style flick pass, Gagai showed an uncanny ability to attract the attention of defenders long enough to give Uate room to move.
By the end of their first campaign together, the dynamic duo had racked up 16 tries in 11 games (Uate 12 and Gagai four).
When Uate grabbed a hat-trick and Gagai a double in round one this year, that made it 21 tries in 12 games, a remarkable return from about half a season together.
But after the dream start came a reality check.
Fifteen minutes into the round-two clash against Manly at Brookvale, Gagai was helped from the field with an ankle injury that would sideline him for a month.
Not long after he returned, Uate had his rib cartilage crunched playing against the Warriors and spent two games on the injured list.
Maybe Gagai and Uate are playing wounded. Maybe not. Whatever the case, the tries have dried up.
After their first 12 games together yielded 21 tries, the past eight have produced just two.
Uate last scored against the Gold Coast in round seven, and Gagai crossed the stripe a week later against the Sharks. Since then it’s been a clean sheet.
Gagai has gone eight games without a try or line break.
Uate has been tryless for six games, the longest drought of his 78-try NRL career. Before this lean streak, he had never gone more than four games between four-pointers.
In tandem, the Gagai-Uate partnership have not managed a try nor a line break in their past four games.
What makes this famine even more remarkable is that on the other side of the field, Newcastle’s wide men have been dining out.
In the past seven games, since James McManus joined forces with Joey Leilua, the Knights’ new-look left edge have combined for 14 tries.
McManus, who is in career-best form, has scored nine tries in that window. Leilua has five.
In those four games in which Gagai and Uate have registered a duck egg together – against the Warriors, Storm, Titans and Bulldogs – McManus and Leilua have scored 10 times.
The left-leaning trend becomes more intriguing the deeper you dig.
All of Newcastle’s four tries in their last game, an 18-16 win against the Bulldogs in Mackay before the bye, were scored on the left-hand side of the field.
So, too, all eight in the 46-16 hammering of Gold Coast the week before.
Indeed, in the past six games they have scored 20 tries, only one of which has come on the right side.
That was Newcastle’s second try in the round-12 loss to South Sydney, which was scored by debutant Josh Mantellato after a cut-out pass from Kevin Naiqama.
Neither of whom, incidentally, are in the Newcastle team this week.
If the absence of their names on the scoresheet is not evidence enough of the tough times Uate and Gagai are experiencing, their Contributor Value Ratings statistics add further weight to the argument.
The CVR system was devised by Manly coach Des Hasler and NRL Stats a few years ago to break down and analyse every facet of the game and measure individual input.
The Moneyball-style data has been embraced by many NRL coaches.
Last season Uate and Gagai were Newcastle’s top two performers, according to their CVR.
Uate registered a CVR game average of 391.69 points and a CVR minute average (used to measure explosive impacts) of 4.88. Gagai’s respective marks were 405.4 and 5.07.
This season Uate has slipped to 293.64 and 3.78, Gagai to 250.38 and 3.33. They rank 10th and 16th respectively on the Knights’ CVR game stats.
But it is not as if they are not getting the ball nor willing to do the hard yards. In the past three games, Uate has carried the Steeden 171 metres, 143m and 121m, Gagai 152m, 145m and 123m.
They have been heavily involved. Just not at the business end of the pitch.
Exactly why Newcastle’s right-side attack has been so quiet is a moot point.
Perhaps opposition defenders are marking them more closely. Maybe Knights fullback Darius Boyd is more comfortable setting up plays on the left edge, as he did so successfully at St George Illawarra for the likes of Ben Creagh, Matt Cooper and Brett Morris.
Whatever the case, if Knights coach Wayne Bennett can get his right edge firing as they once were – and keep his left side performing as they have been recently – then they will be a handful for any opposition in any game.