Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Bulldogs v Knights
We've got a real contest on our hands here. The Bulldogs are the shortest-priced favourites in the four games this weekend, but they are warm favourites rather than hot.
This is a real danger game for them. It's a game the Knights can win, and if you're a fan of either side it wouldn't shock you if the Knights did win, because they've got a very good record against the Bulldogs in recent years. This year's two clashes have both gone to the Knights – 44-8 at home in Round 10 and 18-12 in a Bulldogs home game the club took to Mackay in Round 17. Whatever problem it is the Bulldogs have with the Knights, it has tended to keep reoccurring.
There was little between the two teams on the competition table after 26 rounds. The Bulldogs finished sixth and the Knights seventh. The Bulldogs won 13 games and lost 11, and the Knights won 12, lost 11 and drew one. In attack, the Bulldogs scored one point more than the Knights over the course of the season – 529 to 528. The gap in defence was bigger, but still not substantial. The Knights had the fifth-best defence, conceding 422 points, and the Bulldogs the eighth-best, giving up 463.
The concern for the Bulldogs is their lack of consistency over the closing rounds. After a three-game winning run over a Storm side that was minus their State of Origin stars, the Eels and the Dragons, they went loss, win, loss, win, loss over the last five rounds. Only one of those games was against an eventual top-eight side, a 28-20 loss to the Rabbitohs in Round 24. Their 16-11 loss to the Broncos in the final round was particularly disappointing because it was a game they should have been determined to win for the sake of creating momentum, but the opposition out-willed them.
The Knights enter the finals with momentum, having scored wins over the Broncos, 28-16 on the road, and the Eels, 54-6 at home, in the last two rounds. Sure, giving the Eels a hammering isn't rocket science these days, but all you can do is play the opposition that is in front of you and the impressive thing about the Knights that day was that they went right on with the job. They could have dropped down a few gears in the second half, but instead they pulverised the opposition and left the field feeling pretty good about a job well done.
The Bulldogs have named the same 17 as last week, but with James Graham rising to start and Sam Kasiano dropping to the bench. Second-rower Frank Pritchard has completed a two-match suspension, but hasn't been named. Neither has fellow forward Greg Eastwood, who has been out injured recently.
The Knights have named an unchanged 17.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Darius Boyd has been sneaking into really good form. Even when it appears he has been quiet, his figures usually don't look bad, but in his past three games the Knights fullback has made four line-breaks, scored four tries and run for a total of 467 metres. That's a class player heating up for the finals.
Watch Out Knights: Trying to predict when Tony Williams will explode into action is obviously a very difficult pastime, but if it happens we'll know it. The Bulldogs second-rower has shown signs that the big day may come, only for those signs to prove to be false dawns, but the possibility remains that if the mood takes him anything could happen.
Plays To Watch: James Graham and Sam Kasiano smashing the ball forward for the Bulldogs, always with that hint of the possibility of a great offload.
Josh Reynolds putting the defence in two minds because he's got a great passing game but is a dangerous runner as well. And he follows those forwards around in support.
Boyd with that sweep move around the outside to join in when the Knights are deep in attack. He does it as well as Billy Slater and Brett Stewart, which is saying something.
And Knights five-eighth Jarrod Mullen with his tremendous long-passing game that is a big reason centres Joseph Leilua and Dane Gagai are able to get on the outside of defenders and into the clear.
Key Match-Up: We've got some red-hot wingers going around here. Much of what they have accomplished in the tryscoring department comes down to the great work of the players on their inside, but it's not always as simple as just catching and scoring.
Bulldogs pair Mitch Brown (12 tries in 23 games) and Sam Perrett (17 in 24) and Knights pair James McManus (19 in 23) and Akuila Uate (13 in 21) are all doing great work. One special play from a member of that quartet to get over the line in a potentially tight game could make the difference between winning and losing.
Where It Will Be Won: Will Barba come off the bench as named, or will he start? And, when he is out there, will he come up with something worthwhile? The answer to the first question is up to Bulldogs coach Des Hasler. The rest is up to Barba. The Bulldogs may need something special from him to get the win. The Knights have settled into a fairly decent groove recently, and it will take something special to upset that.
Hooker Danny Buderus turned back the clock a bit in the win over the Eels, and with his retirement looming the Knights would love to keep his season alive for at least another game.
The History: Played 39; Bulldogs 19, Knights 19, drawn 1. The Knights have won seven of the past 10 clashes, including three of the past four. The Knights have also won three of the past five at this venue.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Bulldogs v Knights finals clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 4pm.
The Way We See It: The Bulldogs are vulnerable at the moment. It's not OK to say that based on the fact they made the grand final last year they're really a top-four-team that just happens to be in the bottom half of the top eight. They are where they should be, on form.
The Knights have had the wood on them, and will go into this game with confidence because of that and because of their win-win finish to the regular season.
The Bulldogs need Barba firing, but there is no guarantee that will happen. The Knights have got a really solid approach going at the moment which is good enough for them to win this game. Knights by six points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.