Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Knights v Wests Tigers
Two sides that failed to live up to the hype in 2012 will be looking to make significant strides over the coming months and it will be intriguing to see what progress, if any, they have made in the pre-season.
There is no doubt that expectation is high in Newcastle ahead of their first game of the year. While there were no miracles in supercoach Wayne Bennett’s first season in charge, they did begin to find their mojo as the season wore on and if they can find some consistency earlier on in 2013 they could figure prominently come finals time.
Key to that will be keeping their leading players on the park – particularly captain Kurt Gidley who played just five games last year – while Darius Boyd, Danny Buderus and Jarrod Mullen form an enviable spine.
Most impressive though are the forwards Bennett has lured his way over the past 18 months. Last year it was Neville Costigan, Kade Snowden, Adam Cuthbertson and mid-season arrival Willie Mason that bolstered the ranks; now they can boast an equally formidable back row following the arrival of Jeremy Smith, Beau Scott and former Rabbitoh David Fa’alogo during the off-season.
The trial form has been strong, with a 46-10 loss to Parramatta in early February of no great concern given that the Eels fielded a much stronger side. The Knights produced an impressive defensive display to down South Sydney 18-6 in Coffs Harbour and led Cronulla for most of the match in their final pre-season hit-out before conceding three late tries after Bennett had replaced most of his starting 13.
No doubt they will be supremely confident of a first-up win in front of what will be a typically boisterous Hunter Stadium crowd on Monday night.
For Wests Tigers, there remain plenty of questions still to be answered.
In many ways this is a new beginning for the Tigers, having farewelled veteran coach Tim Sheens after 10 seasons and brought in the highly rated but relatively inexperienced Mick Potter in his place.
There have been few more frustrating sides in the NRL since their stunning premiership win of 2005 than the Tigers. Blessed with talent – particularly in the shape of captain Robbie Farah and five-eighth Benji Marshall – they have looked like world beaters at times yet have played in only one preliminary final in the past seven years.
Potter’s first mission will be to mend the fractures that appeared last season when a 10th-place finish saw not only Sheens depart but popular team men Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan shopped out to Cronulla. English international Gareth Ellis will also be missed.
While Braith Anasta’s arrival is something for Tigers fans to look forward to, it is also yet to be seen what impact the shock death of promising young forward Mosese Fotuaika will have on their season. That his funeral was held just five days before the club’s season opener against the Knights will surely have an emotional impact on their preparations.
Still, expect them to play with plenty of passion in Fotuaika’s memory as they look to put their horrendous 2012 behind them.
Former Canberra hooker Travis Waddell will make his Knights debut in place of injured hooker Danny Buderus who is recovering from pre-season back surgery. Smith and Scott will also play their first premiership game for the club, while Anthony Quinn returns home after six years in Melbourne to partner Dane Gagai in the centres (filling in for the injured Timana Tahu).
For the Tigers, impressive young halfback Jacob Miller earns his shot in the halves alongside Marshall to kick off the new season, with Tim Moltzen winning the No.1 jersey.
Young prop Jack Buchanan has earned his shot in the front row after being recruited from St George Illawarra’s Under-20s squad while Potter has named an extended six-man bench that includes fellow recruits Bodene Thompson and Eddy Pettybourne.
Watch Out Knights: Newcastle boast a big, intimidating forward pack but if there are two men with the ability to take full advantage of fatigue it is the lethal Robbie Farah-Benji Marshall duo. Watch for the pair to start to play tight in around the middle as each half wears on. Despite the Tigers’ disappointing 2012 season, the pair combined to produce 43 try assists and 41 line-break assists.
Farah ranked second for line-breaks by a hooker last year (six) and third for try assists (seven), line-break assists (nine) and average runs (8.5).
Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Tigers put in more grubbers than any other side last season (128) and were big fans of the attacking kick, but they might want to look to other methods if they hope to crack Newcastle’s defence on Monday night. The Knights conceded just eight tries from kicks last season – easily the fewest in the NRL and a remarkable statistic given how it compares to their rivals. By comparison, top-eight sides Manly, Cronulla and Canterbury conceded 28, 24 and 23 respectively so Newcastle’s back three is more than up to the challenge.
Key Match-Up: Akuila Uate v Marika Koroibete. Two Fijian excitement machines go head to head in a truly mouth-watering duel. Uate, who signed on with the Knights for four more years midweek, has been the NRL’s blockbusting winger for the past few seasons. He finished with 18 tries last year, along with 25 line-breaks – two short of Ben Barba’s benchmark 27 busts but accrued from five games less than the Bulldogs superstar.
Twenty-year-old Koroibete, a beautifully balanced runner with scorching speed off the mark, scored seven tries in six appearances for the Tigers in 2012 – and he made a line-break in every game.
Whoever comes out on top in this personal battle could steer their side to the competition points.
Plays To Watch: It is no secret that Knights fullback Darius Boyd is a key component of Newcastle’s attack. Back when he and coach Wayne Bennett were winning a premiership together at St George Illawarra, they developed a well-known play which would see Boyd wrap around the back wide to the left, take the ball from his halves and capitalise on the overlap to send Brett Morris over in the corner. That play has been brought north over the past 12 months and will almost certainly be used again should the opportunity arise on Monday night.
Expect the Knights to play an expansive game given the success they had against the Tigers throwing the ball around in a 38-20 Round 16 win last year.
Where It Will Be Won: We expect Newcastle to try to completely dominate the Tigers with their big men, given they boast such an impressive pack, while the visitors have endured more injury pain up front during the pre-season and are debuting youngster Jack Buchanan.
The Tigers will need to muscle up if they are to compete with Newcastle this weekend.
The History: Played 17; Wests Tigers 9, Knights 8. The Tigers have been dominant of late, winning four of the past five games. However, the Knights hold the balance of power at Hunter Stadium, winning five of the nine matches there.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Henry Perenara & Steve Clark.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: Given the added starch in the Newcastle forward pack and the presence of first-choice halves pairing Mullen and Gidley there will be no excuses for a poor showing from the Novocastrians. Wayne Bennett will be demanding more in 2013. In a nutshell, we’ll take Bennett’s experience over Potter’s inexperience at NRL level. Knights by eight points.