Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent
Knights v Broncos
Friday 7.40pm (AEST)
It's been rocks or diamonds so far this season for the Newcastle Knights.
There were three straight losses to open the season, the sickening neck injury to Alex McKinnon, followed by an emotion-charged victory in honour of their teammate over the toothless Sharks. They backed that up with a disappointing display against the Cowboys and then finally an encouraging win over the Raiders in Canberra. It's been a whirlwind opening six rounds to the Telstra Premiership for Knights fans.
It's been much the same for the Broncos. Despite a clean bill of health for their players and stability off the field, two wins to open the season cannot overshadow that they've lost three out of their past four. However, it's not all doom and gloom for Brisbane. With the exception of their sluggish display against the Eels, their other two losses against the Roosters and Titans were games that they would have won if NRL games were decided after 70 minutes.
It may only be Round 7 but Friday's clash shapes as a huge test in the context of each club's season.
The Broncos sit in eighth spot on the ladder; before last weekend they were third, the week before they were second – so another loss here would see them slip out of a congested top eight.
On the other hand the Knights, who sit 13th on the ladder, will face an uphill battle just to make the top eight if they lose on Friday night. Although the season is a long one with representative football still to be played, sitting on two wins from seven isn't what you'd describe as the required credentials to make the big games at the end of the season.
In looming milestones, Jarrod Mullen is two points shy of 150 in the NRL after debuting for the Knights in Round 10, 2005, against the Tigers. Sam Thaiday plays his 197th game for the Broncos and Ben Hunt and Josh Hoffman will each play their 96th NRL match.
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Ben Hunt has been outstanding for the Broncos in 2014 and the proof lies in three crucial statistical areas. Brisbane's shining light is the outright leader for the Broncos in tries scored (five) and line breaks (six), and has made three try assists.
After playing a starring role in Brisbane's heartbreaking 30-26 loss to the Roosters in Round 3, Anthony Griffin challenged the 24-year-old to consistently repeat that type of performance on a weekly basis. Since scoring a double against the Chooks, Hunt has crossed the stripe in every game since, while two of his six line breaks came last Friday against the Titans.
The halfback is clearly a man in form and the Knights will need to curtail his influence.Watch Out Broncos:
Although Dane Gagai is now a fully-fledged Knight, the 23-year-old still has a deep connection to the Broncos; he is the cousin of Josh Hoffman and former winger Wendell Sailor, and his father Ray was contracted to the Broncos in the late '80s but was prevented from playing first-grade due to injury. Being dumped by the Broncos mid-season in 2012 for a string of minor disciplinary breaches suggested that the talented outside back was struggling with the concept of being a professional footballer.
After playing six NRL games for Brisbane, scoring four tries, Gagai has gone on to play 41 games under Wayne Bennett at the Knights, crossing for 11 tries. Although only scoring a try roughly once every four games isn't the type of return you want from one of your strike weapons out on the fringes, Gagai's developing combination with (injured) winger Akuila Uate is a Newcastle trump card, with Gagai contributing seven try assists in 2013.
After crossing for his first try of 2014 against the Raiders last week, expect a hungry and determined Gagai to come out firing against his old club, who he is yet to score against in two appearances.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 7Plays To Watch:
Forget about any sweeping backline moves by either side because all eyes will be on Ben Barba ... again. If you're a Knights fan, you'll be watching to see how he performs under the high-ball after looking uncharacteristically shaky against the Titans last Friday. If you're a Broncos supporter, you simply want him to break his try-scoring drought.
Barba up to aerial assault: Griffin
Including his last two games for the Bulldogs in 2013, Barba hasn't scored a try in the NRL for 545 minutes. His last try was in the ninth minute against Parramatta in Round 20 last season, the game where he hobbled off with an ankle injury a minute after scoring.
He returned from injury to play 64 minutes off the bench against his current club in Round 26 and has since downed a six-pack of 80-minute games in 2014 without bagging a four-pointer. Surely he must be due to score soon, right?Where It Will Be Won:
The return of Jarrod Mullen from a hamstring injury against the Raiders last weekend was a welcome boost to the Knights and his halves partner Tyrone Roberts. Although Mullen's return cannot be directly attributed to their 26-12 victory in Canberra, it released the pressure valve on Roberts, who was shouldering most of the attacking duties when partnering Michael Dobson.
The evidence for this was clear in the Knights' insipid display against the Cowboys a fortnight ago; on that occasion Roberts received the ball on 51 occasions, compared to Dobson's 33 handles. In Canberra, those roles were reversed as Mullen had 51 receives and Roberts had 32 touches.
Mullen is clearly better at directing the Knights around the paddock, which alleviates the pressure on Roberts and allows him to play with more attacking freedom. That could spell danger for the Broncos' forward pack should they become tired towards the back-end of the match.The History:
Played 43; Broncos 29, Knights 13, Draw 1. The Broncos may have won four of the past six clashes between these sides dating back to 2011; however their most recent clash in Round 25 last year went to the Knights 26-18, knocking Brisbane out of the finals race. The last game played at Hunter Stadium in Round 21, 2013, ended in an epic 18-all draw after both sides couldn't be separated in golden point.What Are The Odds:
The Knights ($1.77) are clear favourites with Sportsbet.com.au, but amazingly all of the money is for the Broncos ($2.10), with more than five times the money bet on them. James McManus is the $8.50 favourite to be the first try scorer.
Referee - Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee - Adam Gee; Touch Judges - Brett Suttor & Rickey MacFarlane; Video Referees - Steve Clark & Luke Patten.Televised:
Channel Nine – Live 7.40pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).The Way We See It:
Expect a tight contest - another golden-point thriller is not out of the equation. Despite the Broncos having the wood over the Knights in the past few seasons, Newcastle will be buoyed by their last-start win in Canberra and the Hunter Stadium crowd always gives the Knights at least a one-try advantage. For this reason, I’m tipping a home victory but don't despair Broncos fans – on each occasion that I've tipped against them this season they have won. Knights by four points.
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