Knights v Roosters
On form, this Rivalry Round clash in the Hunter should be a bellringer, with the fifth-placed Knights coming in on the back of three straight wins and playing host to the second-placed Roosters who are sitting pretty on the back of four straight.
In fact with the ladder-leading Rabbitohs suffering a shock loss on Monday, the Roosters are surely the form team in the NRL right now, having won their past two with a combined scorecard of 76-0!
Those two shutouts take the Roosters up to five clean-sheets in 2013, equalling the most ever for a season in almost 100 years of top grade rugby league. It also makes them the biggest contributor in what is now the season with the second-most scoreless losses ever (13) with plenty of time to match or exceed the 14 recorded in 1989 when the struggling Bears were on the wrong end of four such scorelines.
That Roosters defence really underlines the job the Knights have in front of them but they should be well-equipped: their 32-14 away win over Penrith was the equal second-biggest win of the round after the Roosters’ 40-0 demolition of Cronulla (and equal with Manly’s 38-20 rout of the Titans).
Roosters coach Trent Robinson has, unsurprisingly, made minimal changes to his squad, although he’s still managed to find a spot for Sonny Bill Williams who makes his return from a hamstring strain in the second row. That pushes Mitch Aubusson to the bench and Isaac Liu to 18th man.
Wayne Bennett also has just the one change, this one forced by the suspension to Kade Snowden for a Grade 2 Dangerous Contact - Raised knee. With Snowden taking the early plea he’ll miss two weeks, meaning David Fa'alogo starts at prop and Korbin Sims returns to the bench, with Zane Tetevano joining a five-man bench.
Watch Out Knights: The Roosters have been brilliant in attack and defence this season, in both the forwards and the backs, but let’s focus on strike centre Michael Jennings, who has been in magical form since joining the club from the Panthers last year.
He is the club’s leading try-scorer this year, with 11, and this week will be reunited on the left flack with Williams, whose offloads have provided Jennings with plenty of opportunities to terrorise defenders on that side of the field already this year.
Jennings’ form has him within 147 metres of 15 kilometres of running metres for his career, and three line-breaks away from 100 for his career. Jennings is one of those rare players who can conjure something out of nothing and if the Knights take their eyes off him for a second he could cause them some real headaches.
And one further stat on the Roosters’ defence this year – they are currently enjoying their best away season defensively since 1981, conceding just 13.1 points per game. In fact by the time these sides run out it will be one day shy of four weeks since the Roosters last conceded a point, when Manly managed to cross twice at Brookvale in Round 16’s Monday night game. Since then they have nullified 302 consecutive runs without conceding a point. Wow.
Watch Out Roosters: The Knights have some stars of their own in the backline: it would have surprised some (but not his teammates) that the season’s leading try-scorer (16) James McManus was arguably the best winger on the park in the Origin decider (even allowing for a damaging knock-on).
And on the other side of the field, Origin discard Akuila Uate is coming off a double in the win over Penrith (the 17th of his career) and now has 10 tries in 14 games this season. It also saw him join club great Andrew Johns as the third most prolific try scorer in Knights history, with 80 four-pointers.
Uate is just one try behind Johns and the Knights’ home ground (46-45) but that could change on Sunday. He needs four more home tries this year to join Manly’s Brett Stewart (2005-08) as the only players in league history to score 10 tries at home in four successive seasons.
Sydney’s edge defence has been impeccable this year but if it’s ever going to crack then the Knights’ in-form wingers could be the men to find a way through.
Plays To Watch: Livewire Roosters winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck dazzling and confusing opponents with fast footwork (a staggering 249 metres from 23 runs last week); stacks of hit-ups from dummy-half for the Knights wingers (McManus 12.4 runs per game, Uate 13.5 per game); Pearce employing his show-and-go close to the line; David Fa’alogo to lift in Snowden’s absence (97 metres in 28 minutes last week); Cordner running great angles close to the line (two tries last week and six this year, mostly off short passes from Pearce).
Key Match-Up: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves v Willie Mason. Is it just us or does Waerea-Hargreaves just keep getting better? The Kiwi enforcer recorded an incredible 214 metres from just 19 runs in 44 minutes last week to go with 20 tackles, and you just know every one of those bruising shots in attack and defence was an ordeal for the opposition.
Mason probably isn’t at the part of his career where he’s likely to churn out those sorts of numbers with ball in hand but as one of the senior players in the Knights pack and one of the biggest bodies on the field, someone has to volunteer to throw themselves in harm’s way and do something to slow down the relentless up-field march of the Roosters on the back of the Waerea-Hargreaves juggernaut. He’ll need to rally the forward pack into a big defensive showing if the Knights want to counter what they know the tri-colours will throw at them.
Where It Will Be Won: On the flanks. The Roosters just look too good in the middle of the park and barely looked challenged in their past two defensive outings. Wide kicking may not be in the Knights’ best interests with Uate and McManus conceding a massive height advantage to Daniel Tupou and Tuivasa-Sheck and unlikely to challenge them in the air. Newcastle’s best chance could be to test the tri-colours’ sliding defence and either create an overlap or get their wingers one-on-one where they can use their leg drive and low centre of gravity against the Roosters’ lankier wingers.
The reverse will be true up the other end of the field though, with Uate and McManus likely to have plenty of cross-field bombs to defuse and plenty of defensive headaches of their own. Whichever flanks earn the advantage, it’s sure to be an interesting battle.
The History: Played 42; Sydney Roosters 22, Newcastle 18, drawn 2. The Roosters hold a slight overall advantage and at the venue (played 20; Sydney Roosters 10, Newcastle 8, drawn 2). However the tri-colours have been victorious in six of their past seven trips to the Hunter, while the Knights have beaten the Roosters just six times in their past 20 starts.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Reece Williams.
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Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed, 4pm.
The Way We See It: This isn’t unwinnable for the Knights by any stretch but it’s very hard to tip against the Roosters on form, who have Sonny Bill Williams to come back into a side that beat an admittedly under-strength Sharks outfit 40-0 last week. If you see something you like in the Knights’ recent three-game streak, don’t be afraid to tip the upset but we’ll play it safe – Roosters by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.