Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent
Broncos v Knights
The Broncos may feel a sense of déjà vu when they take on the improving Knights in a must-win game at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday evening.
When the Broncos run out at the unfamiliar time of 5.30pm, they'll do so knowing that almost exactly one year ago they were facing the same do-or-die situation: needing a home win over the Knights in order to keep their fading finals hopes alive.
Broncos fans would like to forget that night in late August when Darius Boyd inspired the Knights to a 26-18 upset victory over their side in the penultimate round of the 2013 season. Boyd scored two tries as Newcastle came from 14-6 down at half-time to dash the finals hopes of his former teammates.
Although Boyd won't see any more game-time this season due to his own ongoing personal issues, one man that will again be at the forefront of determining Brisbane's immediate future is their former and future coach, Wayne Bennett.
Bennett's men had a turbulent beginning to the 2014 season where they only won two of their first 13 games. Then if you throw the likes of Alex McKinnon's injury, owner Nathan Tinkler deciding to pull up stumps and the imminent departure of their coach into the mix, season 2014 has been one many Novocastrians would like to forget.
However, since Round 15 a rainbow has formed over the Knights' stormy season, as they have won six out of their past eight games including upset victories over the Roosters, Storm and their most recent win against the Warriors in Round 23. Four of those wins have been played in front of their home crowd at Hunter Stadium, but travelling to Suncorp Stadium will prove a rather different challenge for Newcastle as they have only won three games on the road this season.
For the Broncos the equation is simple – they must win on Saturday night to maintain their chance of sneaking into the finals. There is one thing working in Brisbane's favour as they look to avoid missing the finals in consecutive seasons for the first time in 25 years and that's their two remaining games at Suncorp Stadium. If they can muster home wins against the Knights and Dragons the following week, they'll head to AAMI Park on the first weekend in September to tackle the Storm with a much clearer picture of their finals chances.
Surprisingly, the Broncos could actually lose in Melbourne and still slip into the finals if a host other results go their way. If you're a diehard Broncos fan and want to know how his equation could possibly play out, try doing some serious tinkering with NRL.com's Ladder Predictor.
The reality is though, without a win against the improving Knights, Brisbane's finals hopes are all but over.
Lachlan Maranta has been named to replace the injured Josh Hoffman at fullback with Dale Copley moving to the right wing but it remains to be seen whether that will be the final makeup of the side come kick-off.
The Knights will have Willie Mason back on deck with David Fa'alogo dropping to the bench and Chris Houston named as 18th man.
Corey Parker is only six points shy of equalling Michael De Vere as Brisbane's second highest points-scorer behind Darren Lockyer.
The other Bronco milestone of the night will be winger Daniel Vidot playing his 100th NRL game.
Watch Out Broncos: Dumped by the club in mid-2012 for a string of minor disciplinary breaches, gun centre Dane Gagai reportedly wants to return to Red Hill under Wayne Bennett once his Knights contract expires at the end of next season. The Knights hierarchy have since denied this is the case, but it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise given his cousins are current Bronco Josh Hoffman and former winger Wendell Sailor and his father Ray was contracted to the Broncos in the late '80s. Gagai leads the Knights this season in tackle breaks per game (4.5) and averages 15 runs and 131 metres per match to go along with his 10 line breaks and six tries from 21 games, but he is yet to score against his former club in three appearances.
Watch Out Knights: One Bronco looking for a repeat of his performance against the Knights earlier in the season is Corey Parker. Alongside Josh McGuire and Matt Gillett, the Broncos co-captain played one of his best games of the season in Round 7 at Hunter Stadium and will be looking for more of the same this weekend. On that night in mid-April, Parker made 146 metres and also contributed with 27 tackles, one line-break assist and also a mandatory four offloads. He has been a pillar of consistency for the Broncos in his 18 NRL games this season but the one thing Parker is missing is a long overdue four-pointer. The last time he scored a try in the NRL was in Brisbane's corresponding game against the Knights in Round 25 last year.
Plays To Watch: He received a rousing endorsement from Wayne Bennett and Kurt Gidley in the wake of a phenomenal three-try performance against the Warriors last weekend, but young Newcastle winger Sione Mata'utia faces another baptism of fire when he enters 'The Cauldron' on Saturday night.
Mata'utia and fellow left-edge weapon Joey Leilua were responsible for Newcastle's opening four tries on Sunday and by the end of the 80 minutes the duo had combined for a total of eight tackle breaks, three line breaks and two try assists. Mata'utia also made a substantial 150 metres from 12 runs and Leilua made 104 metres from 11 touches, indicating that the Knights are likely to try their luck again down their left edge against Brisbane.
The only disappointing aspect of Mata'utia's display against the Warriors was the two tries scored on him by opposing winger David Fusitu'a. Broncos coach Anthony Griffin is sure to take note of this and will look towards his right-edge combination of Justin Hodges and Dale Copley to exploit any defensive weaknesses Leilua and Mata'utia may have.
Where It Will Be Won: If catches win matches in cricket, then desperate defence will be the key to deciphering a winner at Suncorp Stadium.
However, maintaining a watertight defence is not the statistical department the Knights have excelled in this season. Despite winning six out of their last eight games, Newcastle are still the second worst team in the competition for missed tackles (33.8 per game) and are ranked fourth for points conceded with an average of 23.9 points leaked per match.
Brisbane average 21.9 points per game and will be striving for a repeat of their brilliant attacking display produced against the Bulldogs a fortnight ago where they scored 41 points, their highest scoring total of the season. Brisbane's average missed tackle count is 28.4 per game, on par with the NRL average of 28.7 missed tackles and they only missed 27 tackles in their 42-16 loss to the Rabbitohs last Thursday. Even if they exceeded that number of missed tackles against the Knights, it's hard to see the visitors scoring anywhere near the amount of points the Bunnies piled on Brisbane in Round 23.
The History: Played 42; Broncos 28, Knights 13, draw 1.
These two sides met back in Round 7 and on that occasion Brisbane recorded a comfortable 32-6 victory at Hunter Stadium. The Knights went home with the spoils last time they played at Suncorp in Round 25, 2013, but prior to that the Broncos had not lost against the Novocastrians in five-straight games which includes their 18-all golden point draw in Round 21 last year. The Knights have won four out of eight away games against the Broncos since the redevelopment of Lang Park was completed in mid-2003.
What Are The Odds:
Punters are all over the Knights ($3.35), with a staggering ten times the amount placed on Wayne Bennett’s current team to beat his future team ($1.30) in head-to-head markets. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee: Chris James; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Dan Eastwood; Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
The Way We See It: The Knights may be finishing the season with a wet sail, but when Broncos have their backs up against the wall like they did at home against the Bulldogs a fortnight ago, they tend to produce the goods. The loss of Josh Hoffman doesn’t help Brisbane's cause although they'll still head into this must-win clash with a very strong side. Another healthy home crowd should help the Broncos over the line but don't expect the Knights to go down without a fight. Broncos by eight points.