Knights v Dragons preview

Knights v Dragons
Ausgrid Stadium
Sunday 2pm

The stage is set for what surely would be one of the Knights’ most famous victories if they can get the job done this Sunday against the reigning champions.

The re-opening of the newly developed Ausgrid Stadium couldn’t have asked for a better first-up match, with the St George Illawarra Dragons coming to town for what should be some classic Sunday afternoon footy.

The Knights’ brand is about toughness. It’s about being a battler and never giving up. It’s about fighting for every inch, every metre… no matter what. We saw it last weekend in their loss to the Sea Eagles. It is a shame the annals won’t have an asterisk next to the 26-12 loss showing how the side battled through their horrific injury toll to be within eight points nearing the end of the match.

They lost Shannon McDonnell (concussion), Beau Henry (ankle), Cameron Ciraldo (pectoral), Ben Rogers (shoulder) and Richie Fa’aoso (concussion) at different stages yet continued to play with pride and gusto.

The result dropped them from first to second on the ladder and now they must face up to the fifth-placed Dragons, who seemingly got back on track with a 25-12 win over the Warriors.

But they must do so without McDonnell, Henry, Ciraldo and Rogers, while Fa’aoso is named but will be monitored during the week.

Thankfully, they get back stars Kurt Gidley and Adam MacDougall to bolster the depleted line-up. Gidley will play five-eighth for Henry while MacDougall, who is set to play his 150th game for the Knights, slots in at centre, allowing Wes Naiqama to cover at fullback. Joel Edwards comes into the side to start at lock, which sees Chris Houston shift to second row and Cory Paterson start from the bench. Marvin Karawana is the new man on the bench.

For the Dragons, Beau Scott returns after a one-week, judiciary-enforced lay-off; it sees Trent Merrin shift back to the bench. Mitch Rein has also been added to the reserves list, which currently has six members.

It’s a tough ask for the Knights, who have an awful record against the Dragons here (won only two of 12). And since losing their opening game of 2009, the Dragons have been in the top eight ever since. The 54-week stretch is the longest of any current club.

Meanwhile it remains to be seen how much the news coach Wayne Bennett is moving on – albeit we don’t know where – at the end of the season will affect the Dragons. Probably little – our mail is all at the club were resigned to it occurring anyway.

Watch Out Knights: The Dragons appear to be relying on the boot to score points, as they work off a little rust in attack – six of their 10 tries this season have come from kicks. And five of them were from Jamie Soward kicks.

With Naiqama, a former Dragon, at the back this week you can expect Soward will pepper the No.1 with all sorts of attacking kicks. So far the Knights have defused all bombs and grubbers but have only successfully stopped half of cross-field kicks and were unable to clean up the lone chip kick used against them.

Danger Sign: If Soward pulls out his trademark chip-and-chase the Knights could be in trouble. Naiqama only plays fullback sporadically and looms as a weak link.

Watch Out Dragons: Kurt Gidley returns to the Knights’ line-up, and at five-eighth no less – meaning he will have his hands on the ball often.

In his one game this year he managed a line- break, a try and a try assist and it is no secret he can create something from nothing.

The Dragons need also be wary of the influence of toiler Matt Hilder. He is on the cusp of hitting the 10,000 metres and 5,000 tackle double, needing just 97 metres and 47 tackles. While not the flashiest player in the competition, Hilder plugs the middle and forces errors with relentless defence. He also is clever with the ball in hand – he has a line-break, try, line-break assist and try assist already this season.

Last, the Dragons need to muscle up on their line. The Knights have scored nine tries from within 10 metres of the try line, the second most in the NRL, and the Dragons have conceded six of the eight they have let in from this distance.

Danger Sign: If Gidley decides to run to the line in the opening exchanges he is likely sucking defenders in before going wide later. And if he shifts the ball wide early… well, it’s only a matter of time before he goes himself.

Plays To Watch: The Dragons are shifting their plays both left AND right this year, meaning Jason Nightingale is one to watch for top try-scoring accolades this year; Ben Creagh hitting the left edge; Kyle Stanley lifting the tempo; Adam MacDougall trying to get under Matt Cooper’s skin; Mullen taking on the line; a 40/20 shootout between Mullen and Soward.

Where It Will Be Won: Taking opportunities. If the Knights are to take the points here they need to capitalise on most, if not all, chances they get. So far this season they have been pretty good in attack, with 20 line-breaks and a further 10 half-breaks helping them towards 15 tries, but it is likely they won’t get too many looks through the Dragons’ dogged defence.

When they do break though they need to ensure someone is supporting the ball runner and they need to finish the chances off – something they haven’t always done well in the past.

The same can be said of the Dragons this season. Their running attack hasn’t been all that flash, with just 10 tries and most of them from kicks. They have tallied only 12 line-breaks for the year – and have yet to make a half-break. The team that can create chances and then nail them will be the one singing the victory song post-match.

The History: Played 22; Knights 8, Dragons 14. The Dragons have won five of the past eight games between the two clubs – but their real dominance comes at the Knights’ home ground, now known as Ausgrid Stadium. St George Illawarra have won 10 of 12 encounters against the Knights at the venue, with the home side not tasting victory against the Red V at home since 2003. It has been six wins in a row for the Dragons in Knights territory. They have a better record (83 per cent) at this ground than any other. However, it is the first time the teams have played here in the daytime since 1999.

Of better news for the Knights is that fact they have won their opening home game in four of the past five seasons.

The past five matches between the clubs have been close, with the average winning margin of just eight points.

Conclusion: Hard not to back the Dragons here, although they have been scratchy and the two sides they have beaten this year have yet to win a game. Perhaps the Knights can feed off the home crowd and give the premiers a run for their money.

The Dragons will be favourites but if you think the trend of ‘upsets’ is going to continue perhaps this is one of those games. Don’t be too afraid to back the wounded Knights – they always rise to an occasion.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin West; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.