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Warriors v Knights
Mt Smart Stadium
Friday 8.35pm

The moment of truth has arrived for the New Zealand Warriors, who in 2009 don’t have as many “get-out-of-jail-free” cards as they accumulated last year.

The Auckland-based outfit were heavy favourites to make the top four this season after an amazing run to the finals in 2008 was followed by New Zealand’s World Cup victory.

Fans will argue that last year when they looked down and out, the Warriors made a run no-one expected, coming from the blue to snatch eighth spot and, well, we all know what happened from there.

But given the strength of the NRL this year, it is hard to see anyone repeating that feat, and so the Warriors had planned to stay near the top of the ladder from Round 1.

But sadly we’ve seen more and more of what we tend to expect from the Warriors – inconsistent play, underachievement and a coach with rapidly greying hair.

They sit in 12th spot, three wins outside the eight, and a loss to a Knights team without Kurt Gidley (calf) here should be enough to convince Steven Price and the boys to start planning a September holiday.

Fortunately they are always stronger at Mt Smart Stadium, so there is no better chance to stay in touch with the top eight than this weekend against Newcastle – a team who have silenced many critics this season.

The Knights have become a difficult match-up for every team they face – they have a hard-working, mobile forward pack and an array of talented backs ready to pounce on the chances tossed up by Jarrod Mullen, Ben Rogers and Isaac de Gois.

A win on the road here will confirm their place as one of the teams to beat in 2009.

They aren’t without changes however, and Brian Smith has again tinkered with the halves, with this week’s combination taking the form of Ben Rogers and NSW hopeful Jarrod Mullen, due to a groin injury to last week’s halfback Scott Dureau.

Of course, the biggest change is the loss of the NSW captain who is replaced by former Tiger Shannon McDonnell, a capable player, but not someone who will replicate Gidley’s incredible numbers.

James McManus also returns from injury for the Knights at the expense of Keith Lulia.

For the Warriors, Joel Moon will miss a week with concussion and centre Jerome Ropati has been replaced by Patrick ah Van after he came up with costly errors against the Sharks last weekend.

Hooker Ian Henderson also returns to the side, in place of Aaron Heremaia, after a fortnight of compassionate leave.

Watch out Knights: The Warriors enter this match in terrible form – they’ve won just one of their past six games, but on that horror run they have unearthed one particularly special player. Kevin Locke is built like a young Billy Slater with his explosive speed, tackle-busting ability and breathtaking acceleration. In just two games, Locke has had an immediate impact for the Warriors, scoring two tries, busting the line twice and showing all the incredible skills that made him a standout in the Toyota Cup the past two seasons.

When you compare him to the man he replaces – Denan Kemp – the stats stack up heavily in Locke’s favour… in nine matches Kemp only broke the line four times for one try!

The Warriors tend to favour the left-hand side of the field – it is where Manu Vatuvei scored the bulk of his tries this season before a switch to the right, so Locke may be a good bet for first try scorer!

Watch out Warriors:
Newcastle have not taken losing well. Every time they’ve been beaten this season they’ve come out and taken a quality opponent to the cleaners.

Among their big scalps after coming off a loss this season are the Sharks (Round 2), the Sea Eagles (Round 4), the Broncos (Round 8) and a fortnight ago they beat the ladder-topping Bulldogs 22-14. They are without doubt the best rebound team in the NRL in 2009.

But Newcastle are also incredibly resilient defensively. No team in the competition makes more effective one-on-one tackles (260 this year, compared to the Warriors’ 186) which allows the defensive line to set earlier than others. Each player has confidence that his team-mate can do an assignment unassisted.
Where it will be won:
Night matches are won in the forwards, and Newcastle come into the game with an undersized forward pack – most notable because 105kg back-rower Chris Houston has regularly been pushed into the front row this year.

The injured Gidley has averaged 170 metres per match (first in the NRL), but despite this the Knights still rank just eighth for metres made per match. The Warriors, on the other hand, rank fourth.

If the likes of Steve Simpson, Zeb Taia and Richie Fa’aoso can win the forwards battle then Newcastle will definitely have the upper hand in this battle because they have a clear edge in the halves.

For the Warriors to win, they will need Herculean efforts from Steve Price (155 metres a match), Sam Rapira (100 metres a match) and Russell Packer (110 metres a game).

The History:
It’s all Newcastle. Newcastle have the edge since 1995 (14 to 8 with one draw), but also they hold the advantage at Mt Smart Stadium, winning seven of the 12 games played.

The Warriors have the advantage recently however – winning three of the past four, including the past two in Auckland.

Conclusion: The Warriors are floundering. Ivan Cleary should realise this is one of the last chances of the season to mount a charge at the finals and the Warriors at home will be ready to play.

Even so, Newcastle are a dangerous and well-drilled team. They have no fear of playing away from home and are yet to lose back-to-back games this season. Kurt Gidley is a massive loss, but they should still start warm favourites.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Ricky McFarlane; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9.30pm AEST; Fox Sports – delayed 1am Saturday.   

* Statistics:  NRL Stats
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