Newcastle Knights v Cronulla Sharks
Having pulled off one of the biggest signings in the history of rugby league on Tuesday, Newcastle will be determined to cap a memorable week with a victory against an improving Cronulla outfit.
But what impact will Wayne Bennett’s pending arrival have on the Knights and incumbent coach Rick Stone?
Bennett, the seven-time premiership winning super coach, has stolen all the headlines in the build-up to this clash, providing a possible distraction for the Knights from the task at hand.
Newcastle have been the surprise packets of the opening five weeks and this week their chances in 2011 could be determined by their efforts against Cronulla. The Bennett announcement may well prove the catalyst that inspires several players among the squad, who will be desperate to impress before ‘Benny’ comes to town at the end of the year.
One man who won’t have one eye on the future is coach Stone. He will be doing everything in his power to ensure his troops remain focused on their 2011 campaign, beginning with their showdown against the Sharks.
Both sides are in good form, despite losing hard-fought matches at the weekend. Cronulla suffered a heartbreaking loss to Manly on the stroke of fulltime, while a contentious forward pass call denied Newcastle a shot at victory against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Monday night – and contributed to an outburst from frustrated coach Stone that cost the club a $10,000 fine for criticism of the refs.
A minus for the Knights is that they will be without offloading back-rower Cory Paterson, who was suspended for making unnecessary contact with his knees in a tackle on Bronco Jharal Yow Yeh last week.
Meanwhile Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has named an unchanged starting line-up; he is expected to omit Dean Collis from a five-man bench.
Sharks hooker Paul Aiton will make his 100th appearance in the NRL.
Watch Out Knights: Blockbusting Sharks prop Kade Snowden returns home to Newcastle for the first time since his decision to hold-off on signing a contract extension with Cronulla.
Despite Nathan Tinkler’s desire to ensure Snowden returns to the fold in 2012, his deal with the Knights is far from finalised. The whispers NRL.com hears is that Wayne Bennett may be the stumbling block to the Knights forking out the big dollars first associated with any Snowden deal.
If that’s the case you can expect the 24-year-old Shark (108 metres and 24 tackles per game in an average 49 minutes in 2011) to rip in on Sunday to show everyone – Sharks and Knights alike – he’s worth his asking fee.
Danger Sign: Jeremy Smith, Anthony Tupou and Paul Gallen have combined to form one of the most dynamic back-row combinations in the NRL.
Together they have managed to rack up a mammoth 26 offloads in the opening five rounds, proving a nightmare for opposition teams to contain.
Watch Out Sharks: Knights winger Akuila Uate topped the NRL tryscoring list in 2010 – but he hasn’t scored in his past three hit-outs; he is due to streak over the white line.
The Fijian flyer, who plays his 50th NRL game on Sunday, has only been held scoreless for four consecutive matches once previously.
Danger Sign: Cronulla’s back three are in for a tough afternoon trying to combat the kicking game of Jarrod Mullen.
Along with the Dragons, Manly and Canberra, the Knights have enjoyed the most success from kicks, crossing for seven tries from the boot in 2011.
Adding to the Sharks’ concerns is their inability to defend opposition kicks, conceding seven tries in five games, the most of any team in the NRL.
Plays To Watch: Mullen and Gidley’s varied kicking game, including grubbers behind the advancing defensive line; Uate at dummy-half or first receiver looking to bust through fatigued defenders; Richie Fa’aoso punching through the line at full speed; Gidley feeding runners with short flat passes at the line; Nathan Gardner taking on all-comers at every opportunity, and from anywhere on the field; Paul Gallen or Anthony Tupou offloading close to the try line; the defensive intensity of Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden, looking to gain the upper hand in the physical and mental battle.
Where It Will Be Won: Existing injuries to key engine room personnel Neville Costigan and Zeb Taia will rob the Knights of some much-needed firepower to rival the lethal back row of the Sharks.
While Cronulla don’t have a star-studded backline, they possess a noticeable advantage in the forwards, which will give them the upper hand on Sunday.
If Newcastle are going to win they must rely on their outside backs to create opportunities, while Cronulla will be calling on a bash-and-barge style through the middle to come away from Ausgrid Stadium with the two competition points.
NSW prop candidates Douglas and Snowden will be keen to produce solid performances with State of Origin selection just around the corner.
The History: Played 36; Knights 20, Sharks 15, 1 draw. Cronulla have only ever won in Newcastle on four occasions in 16 matches since 1988.
Conclusion: After starting the season with impressive back-to-back victories, Newcastle have slipped to the edge of the top eight on the back of losses to Manly, St George Illawarra and Brisbane, and now sit equal with the Sharks on four points.
Despite Cronulla’s dismal Round 1 showing against Canberra, Shane Flanagan’s men have shown enough over the past month to suggest they could be pushing for a finals berth at the business end of the season.
Newcastle have to contend with injuries and suspension to key forwards which may allow Cronulla to dominate the battle for field position and leave them in the box seat to claim victory.
However, as we saw a fortnight ago against the Dragons, a fired-up Newscastle riding the wave of their fans’ emotions are tough to resist. Given the events of the past week you can bet there will be more of the same on Sunday.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.