Roosters v Knights
This grand final qualifier between the Roosters and Knights shapes as a seriously intriguing match-up – as unlikely as it would have seemed as recently as a fortnight ago.
The Knights were not heavily favoured to make it past the opening week of the finals, travelling down to Sydney for a sudden-death elimination final against a strong Bulldogs outfit. Instead they produced one of the most complete performances of any side so far in this year’s final series, and the lone 13-plus win of the six games so far.
Their task got infinitely tougher last week, travelling down to meet big-match specialists the Storm on their home patch in what has been an absolute graveyard of a road trip for Newcastle sides in the past. It’s hard to argue the Storm produced their best ever game last week but still, it took a gutsy, resilient 80-minute effort from Wayne Bennett’s boys to cause a boilover.
But so complete have their efforts been that the Roosters (who would no doubt have been subconsciously preparing to play the Storm since scraping a victory in their bruising Week 1 encounter with Manly) will now be looking at their surprise opponents with a mixture of nervousness and respect.
But as much as they weren’t widely tipped to go this far, it’s impossible to argue the Knights don’t deserve to be one of the final four teams left alive based on their recent performances. They were almost struck a mortal blow in the shadows of fulltime last week though, when halfback Tyrone Roberts stepped off his right foot and crumpled to the turf clutching his right knee in agony.
Concerns over a ruptured ACL were abated when Roberts was eventually able to return to his feet, stretch his leg out and finish the game; amazingly, he has been named to back up this week.
Not surprisingly Bennett hasn’t looked to make changes – the only variation from the side that took the field last week is the return of James McManus on the wing, replacing Kevin Naiqama.
The Roosters will return to the fray well rested, one would think, and it was a timely week off given the physical nature of the Manly clash. One of the lowest-scoring NRL games in recent memory certainly wasn’t lacking for excitement as both courageous defence and some sloppy handling while on the attack from both sides led to a tense dogfight.
The week off means coach Trent Robinson has little to worry about on the injury front. The notable change is the return from suspension of prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who pushes Luke O’Donnell back to a six-man bench that also sees the addition of Isaac Liu.
Watch Out Roosters: One of the most impressive features of the Knights’ game last week was their ability to stick to a game plan – which shouldn’t be too surprising when you have a man like Wayne Bennett in charge. The seven-time premiership-winning coach has overseen more than twice as many finals games (55) as Robinson has NRL games (25). Robinson won’t be daunted but you can guarantee there will be no better-prepared side this weekend than Newcastle.
In terms of playing stocks it’s hard to go past centre pairing Dane Gagai and Joseph Leilua. They are comfortably top of all regular pairings in terms of metres – with a minimum five game qualification they are first (Gagai 128.7 metres per game) and third (Leilua 118.2 metres per game, Eel Jacob Loko 118.4 metres) for territorial gain. They were on fire last week as Leilua became just the 10th Knight ever to break 12 tackles in a game as both men racked up over 160 metres.
Watch Out Knights: Plenty of stats suggest the Knights will have a tall task getting across the stripe in this one. The Roosters remain the best defensive side this year with just 13 points conceded per game, 12.2 per game at Allianz, and zero points conceded in their past 124 minutes of action! The Tricolours have won 11 of 13 finals matches at Allianz since the turn of the century while the Knight have just one, in 2001 en route to a title, and have only been successful in two of their past 11 trips to the venue.
They’ve also only beaten the Roosters in six of their past 20 meetings, and as a club have never won three finals matches in as many weeks. History didn’t mean much to Newcastle last week when they overcame their Melbourne hoodoo but they’ll need to overcome some history again this week if they are to make the 2013 decider.
Plays To Watch: The Roosters may be notoriously “bad” at forcing goal-line drop-outs in 2013 but the counter argument is they’re pretty good at scoring points once they’re in their opponents’ red zone without needing to build pressure over repeat sets. The only scoring play in that Manly game was a delicate Maloney grubber into the in-goal that seemed unlikely to yield points off the boot until a swooping Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had the last say. Look for Maloney and Mitchell Pearce to use their tall outside men’s height and agility to trouble their more diminutive opposition flankers with aerial raids and grubber kicks.
For the Knights, a few old-stagers continue to get the job done – in particular Danny “every game might be his last” Buderus, who controlled the ruck expertly last week as his troops implemented Bennett’s game plan to a tee. He provided expert service to his runners, whether it was the centres charging in for some powerful hit-ups or the big men up front denting the line around the ruck. His precision passing from dummy-half will again be a key challenge for the tight defenders.
Key Match-Up: Sonny Bill Williams v Willie Mason. Purely for the sake of theatre we can’t go past these former Bulldogs clubmates. As recently as Round 20 up at Hunter Stadium, Williams floored Mason with a big shoulder, deemed illegal by both the on-field officials and match review committee. As Mason lay on the turf with a broken cheekbone, Williams delivered his mate a gobful, before later being suspended for two weeks. Mason missed four weeks.
Both these two men realise what a key player the other is for their side. Throw that competitiveness on top of their natural rivalry and you have a prospective rematch that will have fans salivating.
Where It Will Be Won: Intelligent use of resources. Bennett’s men will need to use their forward pack and outside runners smartly to topple the Roosters here. The Tricolours have no shortage of big hitters in their forward pack and Newcastle’s odds of outmuscling their opponents seem slim.
Last week they overcame Melbourne despite making fewer offloads and line-breaks, having less possession, gaining fewer metres and being awarded fewer penalties. But they defended well, absorbed pressure well, used the outside men to take the load off the forwards early in attacking sets and controlled the ruck. They may not have the forward power of players like Williams and Waerea-Hargreaves so once again they will need to marshal their resources effectively and stick tightly to their game plan – or risk being swamped.
The History: Played 43; Sydney Roosters 23, Newcastle 18, drawn 2. The Roosters have the edge overall, but a stronger 11-6 record over the Knights at Allianz.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
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 including the Roosters v Knights finals clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7pm.
The Way We See It: The Knights have gone further than many expected and really seem to be gelling as a team at the right time, although their task now gets significantly tougher again. We get the feeling the Knights may have played their final last week but when you’re 80 minutes from a grand final the form lines become incidental. We’ll take the Roosters by six points in a gritty, low-scoring scrap.
* Statistics: NRL Stats