Dairy Farmers Stadium
The last match of the round shapes as one of the best, as two in-form teams look to continue their streaks.
Newcastle will be aiming to win their fourth consecutive match, something they have not achieved since 2006, while North Queensland has not won three matches in a row at Dairy Farmers Stadium since 2007.
The Knights have been sensational this season, going from a mid-level team to a real premiership contender and after their impressive hammering of the Roosters they have assumed the rank of co-competition leader (second on differential).
They come up against a Cowboys side that has beaten the Dragons and Warriors in recent weeks, moving them up to the periphery of the finals zone in ninth place, just two wins from the Knights.
The home side has kept the same side that did the job over the Tasman last weekend but they have added Steve Rapira and Ty Williams to an extended bench.
The Knights have just one change to last weekend’s successful side, with winger Akuila Uate back from injury at the expense of the unlucky Cooper Vuna who was impressive against the Roosters.
Watch out Cowboys: The Knights lead the NRL with 50 line breaks and are proving to be quite the handful to contain by even the best defences. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have just 32 line breaks despite having more ‘big name’ players.
Leading the way for the Knights is back-rower Zeb Taia with eight line breaks, while James McManus (six), Junior Sau (five) and Chris Houston (five) are also proving prolific. Surprisingly, despite having the elusive Matt Bowen at the back, the Cowboys are yet to make a single line break from kick-returns, while the Knights have five.
Watch out Knights: The Cowboys have scored more tries from within 10 metres of the try line than any other side in the NRL. The Cowboys have scored 28 tries from close range, showing that when they do get into good field position, they have the weapons to capitalise.
The Knights have conceded 14 tries from within 10 metres of the line, showing their goal-line defence is reasonable… but not hard steel. If they don’t stiffen up when on their line the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen will carve them up.
The downside of the Cowboys’ stat is the Knights know if they can keep them away from the line, they are less likely to penetrate the red-and-blue wall.
Where it will be won: The obvious factor is the battle of the halves, with Johnathan Thurston and Jarrod Mullen needing big games to weave their magic. But in order for them to be successful both forward packs need to take control of the ruck.
Newcastle average more metres than the Cowboys across the ground – although the difference isn’t massive (1327 metres to 1283 metres). But with their kick metres also in front of the Cowboys (561metres to 491metres), the Knights could go a long way towards winning this game if they continue to dominate the numbers.
However, the Cowboys would be well aware that Kurt Gidley is the main metre-eater and if they can curb his average of 175 metres they’ll be on the right track to curtailing the visitors. In fact, Zeb Taia is the only Knights forward to average over 100 metres (102) giving the Cowboys confidence to get on top should they shut down the Knights’ outside backs.
Luke O’Donnell (126 metres), Shane Tronc (112 metres) and Matthew Scott (109 metres) are three Cowboys churning out the big metres and if they continue to do so while holding the Knights’ backs in check, they could get into striking range often.
The History: Played 20; Cowboys 7, Knights 13. The Knights have won four of the past six games between the clubs and hold a 5-4 advantage at Dairy Farmers Stadium. The last time the Cowboys beat the Knights up north was in 2005.
Conclusion: The Knights have been great in 2009 and although they are a young side they have proven they can beat the best and they can play consistently – no longer can they use inexperience as an excuse.
They have, however, been ‘up’ for a long time and it is very difficult to continue that type of form in this tough competition, which gives the Cowboys a real sniff here.
Four in a row has proven to be the Knights’ nemesis this season and the Cowboys are just hitting their straps… well, Johnathan Thurston is hitting his. While ever he is wowing them, the Cowboys become the favourites. Either choice here is a worthy one.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Chris James; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.