The ‘Stone Age’ has started strongly for the Knights – but this weekend’s match-up with the Cowboys shapes as one of critical importance as they challenge for a place in the finals.
Newcastle can not only cement a place inside the top eight for themselves but can go a long way to killing off one of the other contenders if they can muster a winning performance – something that will not be lost on the new coach or the players.
The year just about goes on the line here for North Queensland, as the sand in the hourglass gets desperately close to running out in the 2009 regular season.
The Cowboys’ loss to the Bulldogs last weekend now has them languishing in 11th spot, and while they are just a win away from the fifth-placed Wests Tigers, a loss here could see them drop to 12th with just a fortnight left, forcing them to win their last two games against the Broncos and Roosters and hope for other favourable results.
Newcastle’s win over the Storm puts their destiny firmly in their own hands. If they win their remaining three games against the Cowboys, Raiders and Panthers, they will play finals football.
If they lose one of these they could still be a hope; but if they lose two they’ll need a mini-miracle… and if they lose all three they’ll be planning for 2010.
They welcome back Steve Simpson in the back row, which moves Cory Paterson to the bench.
Richie Fa’aoso has also been moved to the reserves list with Chris Houston named to start at prop, while Sione Tovo makes way for the return of Danny Wicks.
For the Cowboys, James Tamou has been left out, with Ben Harris and Travis Burns added to the bench.
As has been the case for the past few weeks, Anthony Watts and Matthew Scott have been named to start but are likely to again begin the match from the bench.
Watch out Knights: Queensland centre Willie Tonga is hitting his stride for the Cowboys and could be the decisive factor if he can get quality ball.
Averaging 105 metres gained a match, Tonga has eight line breaks, four line-break assists, six try assists and nine tries already – but he is capable of much more. He loves to get on the outside of defenders and then cut them in half with his big step, so the Knights need to be wary of where Tonga is lining up and his opposite needs to keep him on his inside shoulder.
Also, look for fullback Matt Bowen to be more involved as a runner this week after a poor 25 metres gained against the Bulldogs in Townsville.
Watch out Cowboys: The Cowboys cannot afford poor discipline with the referees in front of what will be a very intimidating Newcastle crowd.
Already the second-most penalised team in the competition, the Cowboys will lose all chance of prevailing if they allow a heavy penalty count to mount against them. With an average of seven penalties against them a match the side needs to clean up their act – or face oblivion for this game and the 2009 season.
This is where captain Thurston needs to take the lead. Often he is a hot head who disputes calls… maybe he should try to work with the officials instead of against them.
Where it will be won: In the engine room. Both sides rely heavily on one of their playmakers – the Cowboys Johnathan Thurston and the Knights Jarrod Mullen – but neither of these men can be as effective without some good go-forward from their ‘pigs’.
The Knights need some big performances from Zeb Taia (116 metres a match), Richie Fa’aoso (89 metres), Chris Houston (75 metres) and Mark Taufua (74 metres) instead of constantly relying on backs like Kurt Gidley (161 metres).
The Cowboys need big contributions from Matthew Scott (122 metres), Luke O’Donnell (114 metres) and Shane Tronc (120 metres) to bend the Knights backwards and give Thurston, and also Matt Bowen, the chance to attack a retreating defence.
The side that dominates the ruck speed and field position on the back of their go-forward will win here. The Cowboys have scored more than 70 per cent of their tries from 0-10 metres from the line so it stands to reason if the Knights can keep them out of the said danger zone, they’ll go a long way to cashing in.
The history: Played 21; Knights 13, Cowboys 8. The Cowboys got the cash to the tune of 36-10 at Dairy Farmers Stadium earlier this season but the past eight games have been split four apiece. At EnergyAustralia Stadium the home-side Knights have a good record, beating the Cowboys on eight of 11 occasions. It might be a point-scoring frenzy, considering the winning team in the past four games between the clubs has scored at least 30 points.
Conclusion: This could go either way with the home-ground advantage probably giving the Knights an edge. However, the short turnaround of five days compared to eight for the Cowboys could be decisive also.
Both sides have everything to play for so there is no excuse for being under-prepared or unfocussed… and at the end of the day this should be an absolute cracker. It should go down to the wire so if you are thinking margins keep it tight. And as far as tipping a winner goes, well don’t be afraid to base your choice on something completely irrelevant like colours or mascots or even player appearance (as the leaders of some tipping competition have); it’s so close to call, either side is a valid choice.
Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & David Abood; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.