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Knights v Bulldogs preview

Knights v Bulldogs
Hunter Stadium
Sunday 3pm

One of the more intriguing clashes of Round 10 sees Canterbury travel up the F3 to take on a Newcastle side desperate to stop a two-game losing streak that threatens to undo their otherwise impressive start to the season.

The Knights have demonstrated a bit of rocks and diamonds so far in 2013, having enjoyed a solid 5-3 win-loss record during the early rounds before falling to Cronulla and Canberra over the past two weeks. That first loss was perhaps a little unfortunate with Jeff Robson kicking a late field-goal for the Sharks to steal a Hunter Stadium thriller, but coach Wayne Bennett was filthy after his side completely collapsed last Sunday against Canberra. Leading 14-0 early, Newcastle conceded nine consecutive tries to crash to an embarrassing 44-14 loss. 

Still, there is no need to despair just yet. Already this season we’ve seen five teams bounce back from a 30-point thrashing to notch a win the very next week – including the Knights who were belted 32-0 by Manly in Round 2 but turned it around to down North Queensland next outing.
There is no doubt that Newcastle is a much better side at home. So far in 2013 they have lost just one of five games at Hunter Stadium and have scored 132 points while conceding just 55. Those results are reversed when away with just 60 points scored and 101 conceded.

They will certainly take plenty of beating again this week but they will need to lift considerably against a Canterbury outfit that has rediscovered at least some of its mojo.

Plagued by injuries and suspension during the early rounds, last year’s grand finalists looked a pale comparison of their former selves as they slumped to just a single win from their opening six games but the gradual return of Ben Barba, Frank Pritchard, James Graham and Sam Kasiano has made a huge difference with the Bulldogs winning their past three to get their season back on track.

The big question for them will be how they handle a top-eight side, given that they haven’t beaten one yet in 2013. Then again, they haven’t played one either since their much-vaunted forward pack returned to full strength.

With that in mind, this will no doubt come down to which pack aims up on the day and with State of Origin selection looming there is plenty for Bulldogs duo Aiden Tolman and Tony Williams and Newcastle’s Willie Mason and Kade Snowden to play for.

Last week’s big loss in Canberra has seen Knights coach Wayne Bennett wield the axe with Timana Tahu and Chris Houston dumped with BJ Leilua and David Fa’alogo coming into the starting side in their place. The return from injury of Jarrod Mullen is a huge boost, with Kurt Gidley moving back to hooker. Neville Costigan is also back on the bench.
Krisnan Inu returns from suspension for the Bulldogs with Tim Lafai dropping back to NSW Cup. Coach Des Hasler has again named Martin Taupau and Tim Browne on an extended bench.

Watch Out Knights: The Bulldogs showed the value of having a near full-strength side on the park against the Warriors last week with the performance of their much-vaunted forward pack. Having started the year missing Sam Kasiano, James Graham and Frank Pritchard from their list of big men, all three are now back and ran for 107, 148 and 122 metres respectively last weekend. 

Why is that notable? Because up until two weeks ago, fellow prop Aiden Tolman was the only Bulldogs forward to average more than 100 metres per game in 2013!

Watch Out Bulldogs: He might have been dumped from the NSW State of Origin side last year but with the race on to regain his spot in 2013, Akuila Uate has barely put a foot wrong this year (some worries under the high ball the exception). The flying Fijian has been a dominant force for Newcastle this season with eight tries from nine games, 29 tackle-breaks and an impressive 142 metres per game to his name. The Bulldogs would be well advised to kick to the opposite side of the field to avoid Uate’s powerful kick returns.

Plays To Watch: Darius Boyd sweeping around the back and chiming into the backline three players in. It was a play that served the Dragons well during his successful tenure there and nothing has changed under coach Wayne Bennett at Newcastle. It has been interesting to see, however, that while Boyd is known for chiming in on the left edge he has also been increasing the prevalence of his involvement on the right this season.  

Key Match-Up: Darius Boyd v Ben Barba. Newcastle’s premiership-winning fullback plays a key role in their attack with his penchant for chiming into the backline and putting his wingers over the try line. It’s notable though that both he and this week’s opposite number, Ben Barba, have been quiet this year by their lofty standards. The pair have scored just two tries each this season although Boyd has returned the football impressively while Barba showed glimpses of his best in last week’s win over the Warriors.

Where It Will Be Won: In the middle. Newcastle’s pack has been impressive this season and love nothing more than to steamroll their opponents – particularly on home soil. But they face a tough Bulldogs pack that is back to full strength and if they don’t stand tall this week they could face a repeat of the carve-up Canberra served them on the fringes last Sunday. Expect fireworks up front.

The History: Played 37; Bulldogs 19, Knights 17, drawn 1. The Knights have won five of the past nine clashes between the sides and boast an 11-6 advantage at Hunter Stadium.

Match Officials: Referees –  Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Dave Ryan; Video Referee – Jared Maxwell & 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. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

The Way We See It: This promises to be an extremely tight contest. The Bulldogs are looking ominous now that they have their pack back at full strength and will take plenty of beating but the Knights are always strong at home. More importantly, they welcome back half Jarrod Mullen this week and will be keen to make amends for last week’s capitulation against the Raiders. We can see them sneaking home based on their home-ground advantage. Knights by two points in a cliffhanger.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.

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