Sunday 1pm (Qld time)
THIS should be an intriguing clash, with two sides who failed to make the finals in 2008 trying to kick-start their 2009 season on a positive note.
The Gold Coast enter their third season full of optimism, believing they can qualify for their first finals series. Meanwhile the Knights have been progressively building since Brian Smith joined as coach; they too expect to head into the top half of the competition in 2009.
The home side has had some personnel changes over the off-season, making the selection process difficult for coach John Cartwright. But the mentor has made the big calls and is happy with his squad.
Preston Campbell has held on to his fullback jersey, pushing new recruit William Zillman to the bench, while the coveted wing spots have gone to Esi Tonga and Jordan Atkins.
The Titans have had mixed trial form, having lost 24-18 to Brisbane and 34-12 to the Warriors. But they beat the Sharks 40-16.
The Knights started their campaign by beating a selection of local league players before losing 32-24 to Melbourne and 14-10 to Cronulla.
Interesting selections for the Knights include new recruit Ben Rogers at five-eighth, Fijian World Cup sensation Akuila Uate on the wing and Junior Sau in the centres. All three have impressed in the trials and will complement the Knights’ unit.
Watch out Titans: Despite being injured in the World Cup, Knights winger Akuila Uate showed enough to suggest he is ready to explode on the NRL stage.
The big Fijian has size, pace and agility, making him a triple threat. Should he get the ball in open space the Titans could be in trouble; they might be advised to kick towards James McManus on the other wing rather than give Uate extra ball. In his four-game NRL career thus far he has three tries and averages over 100 metres gained. It will be no surprise to see him add to his tries tally here.
Watch out Knights: There is sometimes no better motivator than trying to prove your worth to a former club and that’s what prop Matt White gets the chance to do in this match. White played only seven games with the Knights last season but has been given the green light to partner Luke Bailey in the Gold Coast front row. In limited game time White averaged 94 metres gained a match and didn’t make a single error – something he’ll be hoping to continue against his old mates.
Where it will be won: The battle of the halves is crucial here. Both sides have reasonable forward packs and some skilful outside backs. But if the Knights are to take the points away from the home side halfback Jarrod Mullen and five-eighth Ben Rogers need to, at very least, match Titans duo Scott Prince and Mat Rogers.
Last season Mullen posted 20 try assists, 13 line-break assists, eight line breaks and five tries while Ben Rogers had just two line breaks, four line-break assists, one try and six try assists in his eight matches for Souths and the Dragons.
This compares to Prince, who had five line breaks, 13 line-break assists, five tries and 21 try assists and Rogers, who posted six line breaks, six line-break assists, five tries and six try assists.
The History: Played 3; Titans 1, Knights 2. In the relatively short history of playing against each other the Knights hold the slight advantage. They have won two on the trot against the Titans, both last season. Newcastle are one of the few clubs to have beaten the Titans at Skilled Park.
Conclusion: The Titans have been given a slight edge by the punters for this game and with class players like Prince, Bailey, Anthony Laffranchi and Mat Rogers you can understand why. Playing the match in Queensland does benefit the Gold Coast although the Knights aren’t afraid to travel. The visitors won’t roll over without a fight but their trial form hasn’t been good enough to suggest they’ll start the year with a big upset.
Match officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Ricky McFarlane; Video ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm (AEDT).
* Statistics: NRL Stats.