Roosters v Knights
Saturday, 7.30 pm (AEST)
A spot in last year's premiership decider went on the line when these two teams last clashed nine months ago, and this Saturday against the Roosters the Knights have one of their last rolls of the dice if they want to reach those lofty heights again in 2014.
With two months having passed since their last win, Newcastle are in danger of forgetting the words to their own victory song and despite scoring four tries to the Tigers' three last weekend found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard courtesy of Pat Richards' booming right boot.
It's been one of those years for the Novocastrians, where anything that can go wrong, seemingly will, and while they're playing with the desperation of Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they'll be hard-pressed turning their fortunes around against the side that knocked them out of the finals race nine months ago without tough as teak back-rower Beau Scott and Queensland mainstay Darius Boyd.
The Tri-colours meanwhile, are not so quietly going about the business of racking up six wins from their last seven starts, beating a mixture of under-strength front-runners and competition also-rans to the tune of 154-56 with an oh-so motivating 42-10 thumping from the Cowboys smack bang in the middle of their run up the competition ladder.
With each 80-minute stint the Roosters are spending less and less time scratching about the chook pen and are fast developing the ruthless edge that saw them blow all comers off the park on the way to last year's premiership win. Even with their dynamic left-edge combination of Jennings and Tupou again being called up for Origin duty for the Blues opposite back-rower Aidan Guerra in Queensland colours, the Chooks still boast nine players in their starting side with representative experience in the past 12 months, and look primed for one of those devastating performances that the rest of the competition became all too familiar with in 2013.
The Knights have made plenty of changes from the side that was just pipped by the Tigers with big name quartet Boyd, Scott (both Origin), Joey Leilua (throat injury) and Kade Snowden (suspension) unavailable. Jake Mamo comes in at fullback, Josh Mantellato on the wing and James McManus moves into the centres for Leilua. Chris Houston jumps into the second row while Joseph Tapine and Clint Newtown have been named on an extended bench.
With Tupou, Jennings and Guerra all on Origin duty, Trent Robinson will pair Mitch Aubusson and Nene McDonald on the left flank, while giving Dylan Napa another start and bringing Kan Evans back onto the bench. Willis Meehan and Daniel Mortimer will battle it out for the final spot on the Roosters' bench.
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Watch Out Roosters: Akuila Uate is known as being quieter than a church mouse with laryngitis in both persona and performance for the majority of 2014, but he roared to life against the Tigers with a treble of tries, four line breaks, 184 running metres and a piece of club history to boot as he moved past Timana Tahu's 91 tries in the red and blue to hold the club's try-scoring record all on his lonesome. With James McManus switching to left centre to cover for the injured Joey Leilua, Roosters' winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be hard pressed keeping Uate quiet if the representative duo can again turn the Knights' left edge into a one-way thoroughfare to the white stripe, especially with the Fijian flyer's power game supplemented by a seven-kilo advantage over the young Chook.
Watch Out Knights: The Tigers cut them to ribbons in the opening 10 minutes last week with some enterprising ad-lib play, racking up double-figure offloads before the Knights had time to scratch themselves, and the Roosters could do worse than sneak a peek at Mick Potter's playbook this week. The premiers may be a different kettle of fish with their supreme set plays and rapid-fire play-the-balls, but they do possess one the best in the offloading business in the form of Sonny Bill Williams, whose ability to free his arms in traffic has led to four-pointers against the Storm and Bulldogs in recent weeks. It's no secret the Knights' forwards, with Willie Mason, Jeremy Smith, David Fa'alogo and Kurt Gidley all the wrong side of 30, are not the most lateral of movers, and with the Roosters have the fleet-footed cavalry to hurt them in Tuivasa-Sheck and halves Mitch Pearce and James Maloney should the Chooks' big men start generating some second-phase play against the defence that has conceded more offloads than any other this year.
Plays To Watch: If balls were still made of cow hide Jarrod Mullen would be booting the leather off it, he features three times in the top 10 for metres kicked in a game this year; Roger Tuiviasa-Sheck to give the visitors plenty of grief if they switch off when chasing those punts like they did more than once against the Tigers; Anthony Minichiello to be a try-scoring magnet when switching out to the right wing, where he has scored five of his nine tries in 2014; The Knights to commit as few defenders as possible to the ruck, having made the most one-on-one tackles this year with Robbie Rochow (36), Chris Houston (30), Kurt Gidley (29) all adept at cutting down the opposition on their own.
Where It Will Be Won: Sitting your opposite number on their backside should rank pretty high up on any aspiring team's to-do list, and both these sides could do with an improvement in the missed tackle department, with the Knights ranking second worst in the NRL with 404, and the Roosters not too much better with 365, though they have played an extra game. While the Roosters plugged the leaks against the Storm with just eight misses, the Knights cannot afford a repeat of the whopping 47 missed tackles they recorded against the Tigers, because rest assured, the Roosters will rattle up a cricket score with those types of opportunities.
The History: Played: 47, Roosters 25, Knights 18, drawn 4. The Roosters have claimed the chocolates in their past three clashes with the Knights, courtesy of dominant second-half displays in which they have outpointed the Knights 16-0 (Round 9, 2012), 16-6 (Round 20, last year) and of course the memorable 40-minute blitz to bundle the Novocastrians out of last year’s preliminary final (28-10).
What Are The Odds: The Roosters attracting over 90 per cent of bets in the head-to-head market with Sportsbet.com.au, and three-quarters of the money in line betting (-12). The premiers are in from $1.29 to $1.22, with the Knights out from $3.63 to $4. The Roosters are clearly the standout bet of the round according to punters.
Match Officials: Referee - Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee - Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges - Paul Holland & Dan Eastwood; Video Referees - Steve Chiddy & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports - 7.30pm.
How We See It: The Knights are a more honest outfit than their position on the ladder suggest, but the Roosters have been building to a scarily good performance and against a visiting side down on confidence and without two of their best, this could be the week Tri-Colours really cut loose. Chooks by at least 12 points.