The importance of this Gosford game for both sides cannot be underestimated as we get closer and closer to finding a premier for 2009.
The reigning champion Manly side have clawed their way nicely back into the top eight and bounced back from a heavy loss to the Dragons with a win over Cronulla but they must continue winning or face the reality of once again being outside the finals zone.
Plenty are prepared to say they are a good chance at defending their premiership but due to a poor start to the year they do not have the luxury of any slip-ups over these last few weeks.
This game represents plenty for the Knights. It is the first since Brian Smith’s defection hit the newsreels and it is the first chance for us all to see just how the players might react to the news.
Will they use it as an excuse to lower their commitment to the cause or will they bind together and take advantage of the base Smith has built?
The answer of course doesn’t hinge on a win or a loss but the effort shown will give us a huge look into the possible short-term future of the Knights.
They enter the round in fifth spot on the ladder, fresh from the bye, but they are just one win ahead of the Sea Eagles in eighth. If they have designs on a top-four finish and a home final they need to win here but a loss could provide unwanted pressure to even stay in the top eight as they could fall to seventh quite easily.
The Sea Eagles welcome back Chris Bailey at five-eighth which sees Jamie Lyon shift back to centre and Kieran Foran move back to the bench.
Vic Mauro is out of the side, with his place on the bench taken by Shane Rodney, while the only other change sees Josh Perry slated to start at prop with Brent Kite coming from the reserves list.
For the Knights, captain Kurt Gidley returns to the side that beat Canberra before the bye, which sees Shannon McDonnell miss out.
Jarrod Mullen is also out, with Scott Dureau coming in at halfback, while the loss of Chris Houston will see Richie Fa’aoso start the game at prop and Cory Paterson join the bench.
Watch out Sea Eagles: While the loss of Chris Houston is a big one for the Knights’ forward pack it gives us all a chance to see how Richie Fa’aoso might fare as a starter. Fa’aoso has been one of the competition’s most damaging bench forwards, upping the tempo when he comes on with his fresh legs against tiring defences.
The big unit averages 87 metres a match from the pine and has six line breaks, four line-break assists, two try assists and five tries along with 22 offloads for the year. Fa’aoso knows this is his chance to prove he is much more than an impact bench player; expect him to come out all guns blazing… bad news for the Sea Eagles’ defence.
Watch out Knights: Des Hasler will have set the Sea Eagles’ radar to head predominantly right as he exploits not only his team’s strength but the Knights’ weakness.
The Manly boys have scored 28 tries on the right side of the field so far this year compared to 17 on the left, with Jamie Lyon being the Sea Eagles’ number one ‘go-to’ man for breaks and creativity. Lyon is a right-side player and his eight tries for the year are reason enough to head his way.
The Knights have conceded 24 tries down this side of the field compared to 15 on the other, so once again the green arrow seems to be pointing directly to the right.
Where it will be won: This game will centre on attitude and commitment. Both sides have everything to play for and therefore have no excuses not to give everything they have.
They are not at desperation levels yet – but this is a good thing as it means there is no point hitting the panic button and they can build substantial pressure with their attack and defence. Obviously one team is going to come out on top here (unless we have an unlikely draw) but we will learn how serious either side is about this premiership regardless of the result.
The two sides should be treating this match with semi-final intensity, as a win will go a huge way towards ensuring a spot in the post-season. We will get a sense of the hunger and passion in the Manly camp… do they really care as much as last season? We will get a sense of the Knights’ resolve… are they annoyed at Brian Smith for leaving them? Watch each side closely in key areas like goal-line and marker defence and kick-chase and see if you can differentiate commitment.
When you defend at marker it can be easy to take a small breather, but you will be found out by a clever dummy-half. When you don’t run that little bit harder chasing a kick, you leave the smallest gap, and bang – a good fullback or winger is through it. The side that aims up for 80 minutes with a true desire to make a statement and be in this competition will prevail.
The History: Played 35; Sea Eagles 20, Knights 15. Newcastle took care of the Sea Eagles earlier this season in Newcastle to the tune of 26-12 and have now won five of the past eight. However there has been a win-loss trend between the two teams for the past seven games so it would appear it’s time for a Manly win. The Sea Eagles have indeed won the two games between the clubs at Bluetongue Stadium.
Conclusion: Newcastle are above Manly on the competition ladder but key injuries have conspired against them here and they will be underdogs.
Jarrod Mullen is a huge part of the team and the loss of Chris Houston is also killer.
The Sea Eagles are close to full strength and as such should be good enough to get the chocolates here. The Knights are by no means out of this one, it just appears the distraction of the week plus the lack of key personnel might conspire against them.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.