Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Broncos v Knights
Two weeks to go and the equation is simple for Brisbane.
Win twice and you’ve got a chance to make the finals; lose either game and the season is over. Truth be told, it would have been a whole lot better for the Broncos had they beaten Penrith last weekend, but that disappointing performance means even if they do win both games there are no guarantees it will be enough to sneak them into the eight.
Yet they are guaranteed to miss out if they don’t, so there remains only one option when it comes to how they must close out their season.
It is hard to get past the point that 2013 has been a disappointing journey for Brisbane. Sure, they were never considered serious title contenders but the Broncos have built a proud history on consistently reaching the finals – a history that is looking more fragile by the day. In fact, the pressure is really on to avoid becoming the worst Broncos outfit in history. Three years ago Brisbane missed the finals for just the second time ever with 11 wins and 13 losses and given they only have nine wins so far in 2013... well, you can do the math.
Some dramatic re-shuffling in key positions over the past month or so has certainly seen them improve with Josh Hoffman excelling at fullback and Ben Hunt staking his claim to be the club’s long term No.7, but it could be too little, too late. And the last thing they needed was to lose strike centre Justin Hodges for the season two weeks ago.
The challenge ahead is immense.
Newcastle aren’t safe yet either although with 25 competition points to their name they sit one point above the logjam of six teams currently locked on 24 points (and two points above Brisbane) and at least know that they are definitely in should they win these last two games.
Nevertheless, coach Wayne Bennett must be hugely frustrated by the inability of his Knights side to play to their potential on a regular basis. When they click they are near unstoppable with a plethora of attacking options out wide, but they can also appear pedestrian at times and are coming off a 26-6 loss to North Queensland last week in which they never looked like stealing a win.
They can also expect to be without some key players in the run home with Kade Snowden copping a season-ending (seven weeks) ban for his shoulder charge on Ray Thompson and veteran forwards Jeremy Smith and Craig Gower both sidelined through injury.
However, they have received a boost with Willie Mason returning in place of Snowden.
Alex Glenn returns from injury in the centres, pushing David Stagg to the bench with Scott Anderson becoming 18th man.
Knights speedster Akuila Uate is on the verge of a significant milestone with just 84 more metres required for 15,000 career run metres in 109 appearances.
Watch Out Broncos: Newcastle’s left edge has overtaken the right as their most lethal this season and the Broncos can expect plenty of traffic to be sent down that side. Given Darius Boyd’s penchant for chiming in on the left it should come as no great surprise with James McManus the primary benefactor. McManus has scored 17 tries, made 16 line-breaks and 67 tackle-breaks in 21 games this year.
Watch Out Knights: Could Josh Hoffman be the difference between winning and losing this week? Hoffman was conspicuously quiet in the loss to Penrith last week as he ran for just 50 metres – a far cry from the 120 metres he has averaged in 2013. He also ran for 183 metres in the win over Parramatta a week earlier, 119 against the Dragons and 179 in the draw against the Knights four weeks ago.
Plays To Watch: Expect Danny Buderus and Kurt Gidley to run from dummy-half when given an attacking opportunity close to the line. Panthers hooker James Segeyaro scored three tries against Brisbane last week and Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett won’t have missed the easy with which he cracked them up the middle.
Brisbane’s pet play is a double second-man play to the left with Scott Prince moving the ball to Ben Hunt, then Matt Gillett, when given the chance to spread the ball.
Key Match-Up: Josh Hoffman v Darius Boyd. Both so important to their side’s chances this weekend, Brisbane will be hoping Hoffman is much more involved this week than he was last Friday while Boyd is the key attacking weapon for Newcastle with his kick returns and ability to chime into the line.
Where It Will Be Won: Execution is the key here. Brisbane have struggled at times this season to turn possession and field position into points and it comes as no surprise that their improved form of late has come on the back of changes to key positions. Likewise, Newcastle will regret a number of games in which they have failed to come away with the two points despite doing enough to win – most notably in their two narrow losses to Melbourne – and will be hoping it all clicks this week.
The History: Played 40; Broncos 27, Knights 12, drawn 1. The Broncos are unbeaten in their past five clashes with Newcastle while the Knights’ have won at Suncorp Stadium only once in the past decade (in 2010).
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Jason Robinson & Neil Wharton.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: One of a number of desperately tight contests on paper between two sides desperate to boost their finals hopes with a win. At full strength we would probably lean towards the Knights but with a number of injuries to their most experienced big men compounded by the loss of Kade Snowden to suspension will make life tough for them. They have a poor record at Suncorp Stadium and that could well continue. Broncos by eight points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.