Newcastle’s season and the reputation of the Bulldogs goes on the line this Saturday night as these two teams face up for what should be a massive finals encounter.
The second-placed Bulldogs, fresh from a confidence-boosting Dally M awards which saw four players win positional awards, two winning further gongs and coach Kevin Moore being top dog coach, are out to prove they can win without halfback Brett Kimmorley.
Considering David Stagg (lock), Josh Morris (centre), Ben Hannant (prop), Michael Ennis (hooker), Andrew Ryan (captain) and Jamal Idris (rookie) all were honoured and are part of this team should go a long way to showing the side has talent across the park – but after last weekend’s loss to the Wests Tigers the question marks remain.
Can they regroup and face a confident Knights team who stormed into the finals with a 35-0 belting of the Panthers last week?
They have kept faith in the side which fell 34-12 to the Tigers, with no changes, which means Daniel Holdsworth remains in the halfback jersey.
The Bulldogs have the luxury of being safe if they do lose, but it is certainly not the momentum they would be looking for and a win guarantees them a week off and a trip to the grand final qualifiers.
Meanwhile the Knights are facing sudden-death football. They have made just one change to the team that demolished Penrith, with second-row forward Zeb Taia returning and Cory Paterson being bumped back to a five-man bench.
Watch out Bulldogs: The old ‘Mad Dog’ might just come and bite the Bulldogs on the backside if he can reproduce the performance he conjured last week. Knights centre Adam MacDougall gave young gun Michael Jennings a bath in Newcastle, scoring a try and having a hand in another.
The Bulldogs’ centres are known for their breathtaking attack but can be beaten in defence; if MacDougall is fed quality ball he could certainly give the home side headaches. He may have had an injury-interrupted season but he still has 10 try assists, five tries, eight line-break assists and five line breaks for the year and proved last week beyond doubt he can still lift when it counts.
Watch out Knights: The Bulldogs are coming left – and hard. With 54 of their 98 tries coming on the left side it is obvious the Bulldogs will favour the Josh Morris/Bryson Goodwin side of the field in attack.
The exciting pair have a whopping 39 tries between them so obviously they will be the main target.
The acceleration of both players is a real weapon, so it will be important to shore up numbers on the right side in defence (left-side attack plays against right-side defence) and to make sure the decision-making time of the individuals is minimised.
The Knights must get up and into the faces of the pair, as a team, to shut them down. This is easier said than done, as shifts are always achieved at depth. Then it simply becomes a matter of making the right decision when decoys are involved. With their season on the line they must make good ‘reads’.
Where it will be won: Generally finals matches are won with defence – but we reckon this game shapes up as one that will centre on attack. The Bulldogs have the best attack in the competition scoring 575 points for the year, while Newcastle’s attack ranked 10th through Round 26 with 508 points scored. This means the job done by the halves will be crucial.
There will be plenty of pressure on the Bulldogs’ Holdsworth and Ben Roberts to get quality ball to gun centres Josh Morris and Jamal Idris, while hooker Michael Ennis also needs to take the game by the horns and inject some attacking structure. Both Holdsworth and Roberts are confidence players, so they will need something to click early or they could be rattled. The Knights should use this knowledge to their advantage and try to get physical early.
The Newcastle halves are by no means established superstars either. Jarrod Mullen has proven he can be a match-winner on occasions but he can also have the odd quiet game, while Scott Dureau has been in and out of first grade all year.
The Knights will need another massive performance from Adam MacDougall if they are to prosper. Mullen may well be the key to it all. He kicks well, can run the ball strongly and has the passing game to set up support brilliantly. If he fires, the Knights can produce the upset.
The history: Played 31; Bulldogs 16, Knights 14, drawn 1. The Knights beat the Bulldogs 22-14 back in Round 12 to make it five wins from the past seven games against the Bulldogs. So they have it in them.
Conclusion: There is no doubt this match will be a cracker. And while plenty are talking up the Knights’ chances, the Bulldogs are still favourites – and rightfully so.
They would have rid themselves of some rust against the Wests Tigers and will be more cohesive this time around, even without the wounded Kimmorley. The Knights are definitely capable of an upset, and they may just be more desperate, but don’t get overconfident. The ’Dogs are “littered” with plenty of star players and if Ben Roberts has one of his good games the blue-and-whites could put on a real show.
It should be a close match regardless, with the winner likely to get home within an eight-point margin.
With the news junior league free passes will be accepted for this game only, there is plenty of reason to get down and support both teams.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 8.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 7am Sunday.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.