Finals football may be out of reach now for the 11th- and 13th-placed teams in the Telstra Premiership, but that doesn’t mean they’re still not going to throw everything they have into their remaining five games of the season.
The Knights and Bulldogs have followed similar paths throughout 2010, on occasion showing the high level of football they’re capable of, but overall failing to deliver on their potential. Last weekend was one of those times for both when they showed what they can do; Newcastle never allowed Manly a chance on Monday night and Canterbury dominated South Sydney from the outset, with each match played out in trying conditions.
But it’s been the inconsistency of both these teams that has been their biggest downfall this year, and a solid performance the week before has shown to be no guarantee of a repeat the next round. So will it be the Jekyll or the Hyde of Newcastle and Canterbury that takes to EnergyAustralia Stadium on Sunday afternoon?
Only once have the Knights put back-to-back wins together – in Rounds 15 and 16 against the Eels and Titans. The Bulldogs aren’t much better, having won two weeks in a row in Rounds 6 and 7 and then a purple patch at the start of July when they managed three in a row.
Perhaps the released pressure valve with finals no longer hanging over their heads is reason for the more relaxed performances in Round 21. This game will show whether that’s the case and one team will add another lot of back-to-back wins to their season; it’s just a matter of who can recreate their last performance better.
Watch out Bulldogs: It’s fairly obvious where the danger strikes from in Newcastle’s team. Powerful winger Akuila Uate added three more tries to his tally last Monday and took the outright lead in the NRL with 20 in total.
He’s strong, fast, can leap with the best and possesses a determination for getting over the line that makes him a deadly package for any opposition.
Last Monday, he plucked the ball from the air for try one, barrelled his way through six defenders for his second, then outpaced Sea Eagles players – and his own – to plant it down for his third.
Bryson Goodwin and Josh Morris have been found lacking at times in defence and it will take a combined effort to stop Uate.
Watch out Knights: It might sound strange, but Ben Roberts coming off the bench is one of the biggest threats the Knights will need to contain. He probably played more minutes than was planned last week when Ben Barba failed to return because of neck soreness, but his contribution down the left side was significant.
Quick passing out to that wing gave Roberts the room and time to work with his outside men and Morris and Goodwin looked as dangerous as they did all last season. In 35 minutes Roberts got his hands on the ball 21 times and gained 81 metres – more territory made than that by seven Bulldogs players who were out there for the entirety of the match.
Where it will be won: The team that holds their line the best will emerge victorious. The Knights and Bulldogs score more than 60 per cent of their tries from within the 20-metre zone, so staying tight and shutting down the chances is crucial to winning the game.
The Bulldogs are fourth in the NRL for line-breaks and second for tackle-breaks, while the Knights are a little further down (11th and eighth) so they’ll want to make sure of their tackles to keep Canterbury’s attacking chances to a minimum – when it comes to average missed tackles, just one separates the two sides.
The History: Newcastle travelled to Sydney for Round 1 this year and took the ’Dogs by surprise, leaving with a 20-16 win. It’s fairly even overall, with the Bulldogs victorious 17 times to the Knights’ 15 and one drawn.
But the home side holds a distinct advantage when they’re hosting, with a 10-5 record.
Conclusion: Matches between the Knights and Canterbury are usually hard-fought arm wrestles and this one will not be any different.
Newcastle raced away to a strong lead in Round 1, only to be nearly run down by the resurgent Bulldogs towards the end of the game.
Jarrod Mullen produced one his best performances of the season on Monday and his team ran like a well-oiled machine as a result. If that happens again the Bulldogs have a task ahead of them.
But on the other side, in the past six weeks the Bulldogs have looked more like the team people have been waiting to see during 2010 and even though finals are extremely unlikely now, they’re still out to show they’re not a team to be walked over.
It’ll be tight, but the Bulldogs will edge the Knights out in the end.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Devcich; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.