The equation is pretty simple for the Knights in this match: win and a semi-final berth is virtually guaranteed; or lose, and their top-eight hopes will come down to a must-win last-round match as well as relying on other results.
Destiny is in Newcastle’s hands – and they would probably prefer to be playing someone other than Canberra in the ACT. The Raiders are always difficult to beat at Canberra Stadium, and they have proven as much in recent weeks. They touched up Brisbane 56-0 less than a month ago and took care of competition leader’s St George Illawarra a couple of rounds ago.
Make no mistake, Canberra coach David Furner has made it his mission to dethrone as many play-off hopefuls as possible leading into the finals – and the Knights are next on the hit list.
This match is a tipster’s nightmare – the Knights should win, on account of their playing roster and what they have to play for.
But the Raiders in Canberra are a law unto themselves and this match has “upset” written all over it.
Newcastle are on a roll though, and since Rick Stone took over as coach, they have turned out two performances which showed they can play almost unconquerable football for long periods during games.
If they can take their confidence out onto the field and show the Green Machine the respect they deserve, they should prevail.
Tom Learoyd-Lahrs is out of the Raiders’ line-up and his is a big loss. Learoyd-Lahrs (104 metres average) would have been relied upon to take on the big and powerful Newcastle forwards, but now other Raiders must pick up the slack.
Canberra do, however, welcome back Queensland Origin rep David Shillington (114 metres average) from injury and he will get the Raiders going forward.
Watch out Raiders: Knights halfback Jarrod Mullen was darn near unstoppable in the second half last week against North Queensland. His match-winning effort in the second 40 was one of the great individual efforts by a player in 2009 – and coach Stone will be looking for Mullen to fire again.
The star no.7 scored a try and set up three in a display of complete dominance. He also made three line breaks, got away two offloads, made three tackle breaks, made 15 tackles and ran for 123 metres from just six runs.
Mullen loves giving early ball to Adam MacDougall on the Knights’ right edge; watch for ‘Mad Dog’ to back himself against the Raiders’ outside men. He scored two tries last week and the former NSW back has more try assists (10) than any other centre in the NRL.
Watch out Knights: Raiders fullback Josh Dugan’s stats have been comparable to Jarryd Hayne’s so far this season, which is a fair rap.
Dugan is a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year; he has 84 tackle breaks – and that’s from just 13 matches. The youngster also has 1,179 kick-return metres, just a fraction behind the benchmark Hayne who has 1,206.
Dugan tops the NRL’s fullbacks for average kick returns and is also in the top 10 for total metres and kick returns.
Although he’s off the “nudie run”, Dugan only has the one try for the season so far – but once the lanky mover finds his way to the try line, he really will be a handful. Some have even called him Canberra’s new Brett Mullins. Watch out.
Where the game will be won: For the Knights this match is all about attitude. If they turn up anxious about the task of playing Canberra on their own dirt, then they’ll get beaten. If they arrive in the nation’s capital thinking victory is a done deal, then again they’re in trouble. They have to treat this match with the same semi-final intensity they have in their past two matches against Melbourne and North Queensland. If their application is right, then they have too much to play for and should get home.
Attitude starts with defence, and generally the Knights have defended well this season. As the Brian Smith drama climaxed, they were given a lesson by Parramatta, but otherwise their on-line defence has been up there with the best in the competition. Only South Sydney have made more try-saving tackles than Newcastle this year.
The Knights also chase well – they only have four poor chases for the season. The Knights need to be switched on and ready in defence – especially given the strike-power the Raiders possess right across the park.
Centre Jarrod Croker (another genuine candidate for Rookie of the Year) has scored 12 tries this year, and a stack in recent weeks, so he’s running hot out wide. On the other hand, Joel Monaghan has 10 ‘meat pies’ and he’s another who knows how to find the line.
If the Knights are vigilant in defence, they will win the match, however Canberra’s chances of winning rely on them being able to lay on points. Despite being much-maligned for his form this season, five-eighth Terry Campese has 24 try assists this year – that’s more than any other half in the competition aside from Jamie Soward. If Campese is allowed to run feely and his passing and kicking game sticks, the Raiders can put points on Newcastle regardless of how good the blue-and-reds’ defence is.
The history: Played 31; Raiders 17, Knights 13, drawn 1. At Canberra Stadium there’s been 15 matches played – Canberra dominate 12-2, with one draw.
Conclusion: For the Knights it’s a must-win game and it’s all about ‘D’. Meanwhile the Raiders have nothing to lose, so it’s all about offence and throwing caution to the wind. Makes for a tantalising match-up.
Match officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Peter Kirby; Video Ref: Chris Ward.
Televised: Live – Fox Sports 7pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.