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Roosters v Knights
Sydney Football Stadium
Sunday 3pm

Can we officially call the Roosters this year’s crash-and-burn team? You know, like the Parramatta Eels of 2010, who were grand finalists in 2009 but next-to-nothings 12 months on? Or is it still too early?

With just two wins so far this year and a current five-game losing streak, we’re tempted to declare them feather dusters. Perhaps we will soldier on for one more week – hoping to see them hit their straps and display the entertaining brand of football the masses loved last year.

How many dedicated readers have been ‘dudded’ when tipping this team in 2011? The fact is, we all see last year’s team in our eyes, and pretty much on paper – not this year’s sorry unit. Maybe it’s time to blink and start again…

The Roosters sit in lowly 14th spot on the NRL ladder and are struggling. And now they face a challenge to snap their poor run – although the Knights have lost two on the trot they have been a gutsy side and sit just out of the top eight in ninth, held back only by a negative points differential. But they also need to do it without some Origin stars.

Halfback Mitchell Pearce is in the Blues’ camp and Nate Myles is away with Queensland, forcing a reshuffle. Centre Kane Linnett and second-rower Tom Symonds are out injured.

Justin Carney comes in at centre, Todd Carney moves to halfback, Braith Anasta shifts to five-eighth, Jason Ryles returns at prop, Aidan Guerra and Frank-Paul Nuuausala is the new second row pairing and Tinirau Arona the new lock forward. Willie Mataka and Mark Khierallah are the new names on the bench.

This game represents a great opportunity for the Knights to push back into the top eight. They have lost Akuila Uate to New South Wales Origin duty, with Keith Lulia taking his place. Beau Henry also returns to the top grade at five-eighth, forcing Tyrone Roberts out and Isaac De Gois joins the bench in place of Marvin Karawana. Dan Tolar has been added as an 18th man.

Watch Out Roosters: Wes Naiqama had a massive game against the Warriors last weekend; considering he is playing his 100th NRL match he could well be primed for another big one.

It was a long time ago when a young Naiqama scored 38 points in a Jersey Flegg game for the Dragons to announce his arrival in the sport, but it is fair to say he hasn’t fully lived up to his potential. He arrived at Newcastle when now-Roosters coach Brian Smith was there, helping turn his career around, so he’d love to show his former mentor what he’s missing.

Last week he showed what he is capable of with 125 metres, 11 tackles, eight tackle-breaks, two offloads, a line-break, a try assist, a try and two goals.

Danger Sign: Naiqama’s strength is just that – his power at full speed. If the Knights can get him early ball with space on the right side he just might bust through like he did against the Warriors.

Watch Out Knights: Will he be better for the run? Todd Carney has to be the man to save the Roosters. Don’t believe the spin out of the Roosters’ camp – his input is crucial and he does need to be the one to play well so the others feed off it.

This week, with Pearce away on Origin duty, he is in control. He has only appeared in the halves for the Roosters without Pearce twice – and the Roosters won both matches. In those games he soared, scoring tries, setting up several others and just being all-round devastating. He needs just two more tries to notch 50 for his career.

This week will also give us a huge insight into how his team-mates feel about him these days. He’ll be calling the shots – will they respond?

Danger Sign: The Knights need to watch Carney close to the line as he might just take it upon himself to get the job done. Don’t be surprised to see him take them on in an effort to score, gain some accolades and rally his men towards a win.

Plays To Watch: Expect the Knights to hit the right edge – it is their most prolific region for attack and the Roosters’ weakest defensive area; Jarrod Mullen’s 40/20s; Frank-Paul Nuuausala’s offloads; Anthony Minichiello’s supports up the guts.

Where It Will Be Won: In ‘another life’, this week’s New South Wales halves could easily have been Carney and Mullen, so their battle will be huge in the context of this clash. But putting the individuals aside this game will boil down to both sets of halves and their kicking games.

Anasta joins Carney in the halves for the Roosters – a pretty decent combo for second string – while Beau Henry is the youngster who had Newcastle firing with Mullen early in the year before he broke a leg.

The kicking game is crucial – the sides need to dominate field position to give their attacks a chance to get rolling. They can do this by hemming their opponents deep in their ends.

The Knights have the edge in averages this year, pumping out 582 kick metres a game compared to the Roosters’ 487. They also have the edge in accuracy, with the Knights finding space with 74.4 per cent of long kicks compared to the Roosters’ 67.2 per cent. The bottom line is that if one team kicks well and backs it up with reasonable defence, chances are they’ll be winning the territory battle and will spend more time in prime attacking zones.

The History: Played 39; Roosters 20, Knights 17; drawn 2. The Knights have won five of the past eight, including last season’s only encounter when they prevailed 34-18 in Gosford.

In 15 matches at the SFS the Roosters have won nine times, the Knights six. Despite being flogged by the Knights the last time these two sides met at the venue (38-6 in 2009) they have averaged 29.7 points against the Knights during the past decade here.

If you are interested in trends – the past seven games have gone win-loss for each side… with Newcastle winning the last match the Roosters are due if this streak is to continue.

Conclusion: Dare we give the Roosters another chance? This game is seriously a toss-of-the-coin job – but even then, the 20-cent piece might land on its side! The Knights have earned the right to get some ‘love’ from punters but it is still hard to back them with certainty.

The Roosters should be more desperate – if they’re not it most certainly will be time to declare them ‘team crash-and-burn’.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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