Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Knights v Storm
One of the more intriguing games of Round 23 sees the in-form Melbourne Storm heading north to face a Newcastle Knights side that seems to be finding its groove at the perfect time of year.
With four wins and a draw from their past six outings including an impressive 18-14 win away to Cronulla last week, Newcastle have managed to overcome a mini mid-season slump to move back inside the top eight. Ironically, it was a narrow loss to Melbourne in Round 14 that kick-started their run and they will be looking to make amends for that result in the much more friendly surrounds of Hunter Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
But with the Storm having hit top gear of late, this will provide the litmus test as to exactly how well Newcastle is playing just now.
While they have impressed defensively in games against the Sharks and Broncos, they can expect to have a lot more thrown at them this week given that Melbourne have piled on 94 points in their past two outings.
The Storm have been struggling through the latter stages of the representative season but they sent a clear message to their premiership rivals with a 68-4 thrashing of Canberra in Round 21 then backed it up with a comprehensive 26-8 win over South Sydney last Friday night.
Not surprisingly, it is their big three of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater that has played a leading role in their return to form although opponents will be well aware how lethal their outside backs have been with the likes of Will Chambers, Sisa Waqa and Mahe Fonua particularly impressive in that time.
The Knights, meanwhile, are enjoying the presence of all of their key playmakers at the same time – a rare bonus for the Novocastrians – and they boast more options than most sides with halves Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts lining up alongside hooking duo Danny Buderus and Craig Gower and utility Kurt Gidley.
That sort of experience is invaluable at this time of year and could see them emerge as one of the danger sides of the finals should they cement their spot.
Knights prop Adam Cuthbertson has been ruled out with a groin injury with Alex McKinnon coming back into the side on the bench.
Melbourne have named the same side that defeated South Sydney last start with Slade Griffin the 18th man. Storm prop Bryan Norrie is poised to play his 150th NRL game this week – although he will need to stand tall given that the Knights are averaging their most points at home in a decade with 26 per game.
Watch Out Knights: The Billy Slater factor is hard to ignore. Melbourne’s star fullback has enjoyed another brilliant season with an average 135 metres per game, 11 tries, 66 tackle-breaks, eight line-break assists and seven try assists.
Watch Out Storm: It used to be that Akuila Uate was the man to watch for the Knights and he continues to be a danger man out wide but it is his fellow winger James McManus that has stolen the show in 2013. The NSW winger has scored an NRL-high 17 tries along with 62 tackle-breaks and 110 metres per game.
Plays To Watch: The inside ball to Billy Slater. This remains Melbourne’s pet play, with Cameron Smith firing a pass from dummy-half to Cooper Cronk who will pass inside to a flying Slater without looking. It’s a well-known play bit that doesn’t make it any easier to stop.
Key Match-Up: Darius Boyd v Billy Slater. The Queensland teammates are crucial to the respective attacking ambitions of their respective clubs. Boys is renowned for his ability to chime into the backline while Slater is arguably the best support player in the NRL and chalked up 150 career tries last week.
Where It Will Be Won: The battle round the rucks will be fascinating here. Cameron Smith is renowned for his ability to control a game – he is the best in the world at doing so – but he faces plenty of experience this week with former State of Origin rivals Danny Buderus and Craig Gower and utility Kurt Gidley lining up in the blue and red.
The History: Played 29; Storm 17, Knights 12. Melbourne have won their past six games against Newcastle but their record at Hunter Stadium is awful with just four wins from 13 games.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Henry Perenara & Luke Patten.
Download the NRL Live 2013 App and watch every NRL match on your Smart Phone or iPad. Download now for iPhone and iPad or Android
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 3pm.
The Way We See It: Newcastle have been in good form of late but we have long said it takes a lot for us to tip against the Storm and given their performances of the past fortnight it seems they are back on track. They will be tough to beat again here. Storm by 12 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats