Saturday night in Melbourne just became a whole lot more exciting for the rugby league fan as the plucky Knights ride into town with no fear and designs on re-entering the top four at the Storm’s expense.
There used to be a time when teams would fear the trip south, when they were beaten before they even set foot on the field, but those times have gone now and the Melbourne side is as beatable as the next team.
This was reiterated last weekend when even the Raiders managed to get a win over Melbourne, something they hadn’t done in an age.
But before we go trumpeting the weaknesses of Melbourne, it must be clearly stated they are still one of the teams to beat for this year’s title.
They sit in fourth spot on the ladder and know they need to get back to winning to consolidate a place in the top four.
They will still start strong favourites here – even though the Knights are just a single point behind them in fifth and are coming off winning form compared to the Storm’s losing form.
The home side has just one change from the team that fell to the Raiders, with Queensland lock Dallas Johnson returning and Aiden Tolman reverting back to the bench with Matt Cross missing out.
The Knights have named the same side that took care of South Sydney on Monday night.
Newcastle have stayed the course despite a little mid-season slump and if they can keep it up they should be good enough to maintain a place in the finals zone. After this match, five of their last eight games are at home. Also they play just three matches, including this one, in their last nine against current top-eight teams.
If they could manage an upset here they would well and truly be in the box seat but they would also be aware a loss could possibly, but improbably have them outside the top eight at the end of the round.
Watch out Storm: The Knights have a real bench weapon in Richie Fa’aoso. The huge forward is providing great impact off the pine in his limited minutes and ensures the Newcastle momentum isn’t halted when the starters need a breather.
Fa’aoso is averaging 90 metres a match from the bench, a very impressive figure, while he has also scored four tries, one of which was an important match-swinger last Monday night. He also has five line breaks, three line-break assists and two try assists.
Also watch for a big game from New South Wales hopeful Jarrod Mullen as he tries to directly impress the New South Wales coach.
Watch out Knights: Billy Slater was far from dominant in the Queensland series triumph and while he certainly wasn’t playing poorly he does expect more of himself. After seeing his side lose to the Raiders Slater had a small reality check and he knows it is time to bring his scintillating best back to the club scene.
He has been pretty impressive in the purple jersey already this year with 119 metres gained a match, 10 line breaks, 10 line-break assists, seven try assists and eight tries. He also has 70 tackle busts, proving he is one of the competition’s most elusive and strongest ball runners.
Where it will be won: On the clipboards. Of course the players need to enact the game plan but this match is as much a battle of the coaches as it is anything else. Knights coach Brian Smith loves nothing more than trying to mastermind big upset victories and trying to plot the Storm’s downfall in Melbourne fits into his wheelhouse.
Craig Bellamy is arguably one of the game’s best mentors and he hates losing more than most. Losing the Origin series for a second straight year and then losing to the Raiders a few days later would have really burned him up and the only way to start to turn things around is to find the winning feeling somewhere. Bellamy is a perfectionist and would have buried himself in his work trying to find ways to dismantle the Knights.
Both coaches will come into the match with effective and potentially match-winning game plans so it will be then up to the players to get it right. And come halftime, when each coach has worked out what the other is doing, it will be the one who can communicate the needed adjustments the best who will help their side towards the competition points.
The history: Played 21; Storm 10, Knights 11. The Knights are one of only two clubs who can boast a winning record against the Storm (the other is the Bulldogs) but they will move out of that list should they lose here. The Melbourne boys have won five of the past six although the Knights did win the last match between the two teams late last season. In the nine games at Olympic Park the Storm have a commanding 7-2 advantage with Newcastle not winning at the venue since Round 2, 2004.
Conclusion: The Storm were rusty last weekend but you get the feeling they’ll return to form this weekend. The Knights are backing up from the short turn-around and although they beat the Bunnies they weren’t at their best. They will need to be close to their best to get over the Storm in Melbourne. They can win this match most certainly – but the safer choice is to tip the home side.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Rickey McFarlane; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.