Knights v Dragons Preview

Knights v Dragons
EnergyAustralia Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Forget everything that’s gone before in 2010 – this game looms as the most important to date for both sides. The 11th-placed Knights need to win – and win well – if they’re to keep their finals dream alive heading into Round 26, while the Dragons need a confidence boost having surrendered 32 second-half points to the rampant Raiders in Canberra last week.

With a points differential of -32, the Knights probably need to ‘do a Canberra’ on the Dragons this week to whittle away their deficit. Granted, they need a bunch of other results to fall their way but they do have a degree of control over their destiny.

And given it’s the annual ‘Old Boys’ game – played in front of proud past Knights – expect EnergyAustralia Stadium to be packed to the rafters. Riding a wave of emotion, there should be no shortage of effort from the home team.

Meanwhile the Dragons need to dust themselves off and refocus on the prize. Last week’s loss was their fourth from their past seven games, and another loss here will render their excellent back-to-back wins over the Roosters and Sea Eagles but a distant memory.

Incredibly, should they lose here and the Titans and Wests Tigers win, there will be three-way tie for the minor premiership heading into Round 26 – although the Dragons are guaranteed to retain top stop on differential even with a loss here. (BUT… hypothesising further, should the Dragons then lose to the Rabbitohs in Round 26, the winner of the Titans v Tigers game in Round 26 would then claim the minor premiership. The Dragons are guaranteed second place at worst… notwithstanding two closing wins by the Panthers by massive margins.)

It’s clear there will be no lack of motivation.

Personnel-wise, the Knights have retained the 17 that put the Broncos to the sword at home last week in an eight-tries-to-three demolition, with captain Kurt Gidley in the no.7 again and the impressive Shannon McDonnell holding down the custodian’s role.

Meanwhile the Dragons have some changes that see them back to full-strength. Beau Scott, given last week off to freshen up, returns in the back row, pushing Ricky Thorby out of the squad. And Jeremy Smith – a late withdrawal (NRL.com hears for disciplinary reasons), returns at lock, pushing Nick Emmett to the extended bench that includes Luke Priddis who was overlooked last week.

The home side will need to lift for this one – the Dragons have won their past five games at EnergyAustralia Stadium.

Watch out Knights:
The Dragons’ squad has a much better balance to it this week. They really missed Beau Scott in Canberra – he had his best game of the year against the Sea Eagles a fortnight ago, making 221 metres and 31 tackles, plus an offload and four tackle-breaks.

Jeremy Smith is a lot better than his 2010 numbers suggest – 69 metres a game and just 20 tackles. The former Storm premiership winner will want to make a statement before shifting camps to the Sharks next year.

After being outmuscled and run-around by the Raiders (just 1046 metres to a whopping 1658 metres) you can bet the Dragons’ engine room will be out to reassert their dominance, with Michael Weyman leading the way.

Watch out Dragons: The edges loom as a major point of danger. On the left wing, Akuila Uate tops the NRL tryscorers’ list (21), while on the right wing Cooper Vuna bagged four tries against the Broncos last week. Their 35 four-pointers in 2010 make them the most prolific try-scoring pairing in club history.

A worry for the Dragons is that they conceded two tries on the flanks last week and were busted open numerous other times.

At five-eighth, Jarrod Mullen has always been a hot-and-cold player but since Gidley has shifted inside him it seems to have sparked him to life – as his three try assists last week would show.

Knights hooker Isaac De Gois and interchange Richie Fa’aoso will be out to impress the crowd and the ‘Old Boys’ – each plays their 100th NRL game.

Where it will be won:
Don’t expect the Knights to grind out a victory here. If they win it will be on the back of another razzle-dazzle effort. They rank no.4 in the missed tackles category in 2010 (801 or 36 a game), while the Dragons are the benchmark defenders (566 for just 25).

Expect Vuna and Uate to go looking for action well in from the touchlines, too – Newcastle have made the second most line-breaks from busts (34), with that duo the major contributors.

It’s unlikely there will be any signs of panic from the Dragons, even if they go behind on the scoreboard early. They’ll look to slot back into their groove, and then get the ball to the edges where Boyd, Creagh, Morris and Gasnier can inflict damage.

Fast play-the-balls could gain the home side some good momentum – hooker Isaac De Gois is warming to form and made eight dummy-half scoots last week. There will be occasions when the retreating Dragons markers will need to make snap decisions about letting the play flow, or getting involved and risking a penalty. You can be certain this home crowd will let ref Shayne Hayne know when they think a penalty is warranted.

The history: Played 21; Dragons 13, Knights 8. The Dragons have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides. In a major confidence boost as they prepare to hit the F3, the Dragons have won nine of the 11 games played at EnergyAustralia Stadium.

Conclusion: The Dragons need to maintain their intensity or they could end up swamped – again. In the first 20 minutes of the second half last week they surrendered their most points in detailed stats history. Not a good sign with the finals looming.

Newcastle have more motivation than at any other point in the season, and delivered a measured and brilliant effort at home last week.

The Dragons were disappointing in Canberra but that could have just been their horror game for the year. An upset wouldn’t surprise, but if the Dragons are serious about the title, they need to win here.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.