Knights v Bulldogs Preview

Kevin Moore on the Bulldogs' line-up

Knights v Bulldogs
EnergyAustralia Stadium
Sunday 3pm

The match of the shortened round is most certainly this clash but the Knights’ chances are at much longer odds due to the loss of their captain Kurt Gidley to Origin duty.

Nevertheless, the table-topping Bulldogs will still face a stern test in the steel city, despite the fact the Newcastle boys suffered a heavy defeat last Monday night in Townsville.

Of all of the sides in the NRL this season, the Knights have been arguably the most impressive given the roster they have. They have “bullied” their way to fifth place on the NRL ladder and are just one win away from the equal competition lead.

They have done so largely on the back of Gidley, who is named at fullback each week in the official match-day Big League magazine but who plays part-fullback, part-halfback, part-five-eighth and part-hooker each week, showcasing amazing displays of skill and stamina.

It is no wonder he has been rewarded with captaincy of his state (becoming the third Novocastrian in a row after Andrew Johns and Danny Buderus).

Along with losing Gidley to the Blues the Knights have also lost winger James McManus to rep duty. New recruit and former Wests Tigers fullback Shannon McDonnell comes in for Gidley while Fiji World cup captain Wes Naiqama joins the side in place of McManus.

The Bulldogs will be largely unaffected by Origin, despite losing prop Ben Hannant to the Queensland side. Chris Armit will start for Hannant, while the only other change from the side that beat Melbourne last week is the return of five-eighth Ben Roberts, which sees Daniel Holdsworth return to the bench.

Watch out Knights: The Bulldogs have had plenty of success sending their attack to the left and it they will continue to do so in this clash despite the fact the Knights’ right-side defenders (those defending against left-side attacks) are the equal best in the NRL with Melbourne.

The Bulldogs have scored an impressive 24 tries on the left side of the field, more than any other side in the competition, and with an impact player like Jamal Idris out there you can’t blame them.

Idris might have missed a few games early in the year for disciplinary reasons but since then he has been impressive. He now has six line breaks and four tries to his name in just seven games and has added 24 tackle breaks.

Watch out Bulldogs: The Knights are the second-most accurate kicking team when it comes to long kicks finding space. They are finding the ground rather than an opposition player on 67.1 per cent of occasions, which is important as it allows a kick-chase team more time to get into position to dominate the first tackle of a set and therefore usually the majority of the entire set.

The Bulldogs are running 11th in the NRL in the same statistic, finding space 55 per cent of the time. They do have the advantage of not kicking to Gidley this weekend, but Shannon McDonnell will be looking to impress with his kick returns, knowing he is basically auditioning for his NRL future.

With the elusive Wes Naiqama and Akuila Uate on the wings, McDonnell could see plenty of ball.

Where it will be won: Ennis v De Gois and Kimmorley v Mullen. These two head-to-head battles at hooker and halfback are the key to this clash.

Michael Ennis lost out to Robbie Farah for the Blues’ Origin jersey and he’ll be keen to prove selectors wrong against a man who Knights’ coach Brian Smith claimed he wouldn’t swap for any hooker in the game.

Ennis is the classic organising hooker who directs play like a halfback from dummy-half, while De Gois is blossoming under Smith, improving his attack every week while being an absolute rock defensively. The Knights’ rake can prove his worth here against an in-form opponent.

Mullen was reportedly unlucky not to grab a place in the Blues’ line-up, such has been his individual form, but his personal disappointment is the Knights’ gain as they need him to take charge of this game in Gidley’s absence. Fronting up against Newcastle junior and now veteran Brett Kimmorley is a great challenge for Mullen, who needs to have a blinder to get his side home.

Meanwhile, Kimmorley has slipped into a support role for Ennis brilliantly this season and directs the side around like an on-field coach, jumping in and providing quality touches on occasion. The likeable halfback looks set for an easy transition into either the media or coaching post-football and the fact he is under much less pressure and intensity is showing in his football.

The History: Played 30; Knights 13, Bulldogs 16, drawn 1. The Knights have won four of the past six matches between the clubs and also hold a 9-5 advantage over the Bulldogs at EnergyAustralia Stadium – where the ’Dogs haven’t won since 2005. Over the past five matches the trend has been win-loss-win- loss-win for the Knights against this rival… so maybe it’s time for another loss?

Conclusion: The Bulldogs are currently the benchmark of this competition. Accordingly they are favourites to beat the Knights, particularly as the Knights will miss Gidley tremendously.

Best bet is to back the Doggies – but don’t count out the Knights completely. They are playing at home and will play to the death. If Mullen and De Gois can contribute significantly then an upset could be on the cards.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 9.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.