Wests Tigers v Newcastle Knights
Leichhardt Oval
Monday 7pm
 
The final game of the first half of the 2011 NRL Premiership season is a massive match-up between teams eight and nine on the ladder. Both sides sit on 12 competition points, with the victor here looking to consolidate their finals push while the vanquished would be left nervously looking over their shoulder at a bunch of challengers including the resurgent Panthers.

The Tigers head to their spiritual home Leichhardt Oval buoyed by the return from injury of key attacking weapon Lote Tuqiri (from a broken arm) and stern defensive back-rower Gareth Ellis (ankle). It’s no coincidence the Tigers have struggled through the first half of the season without the pair, who’ve contributed just three and four games respectively.

Tim Sheens’ charges were never really in the game against the Dragons last week, despite pressing the issue right to the final siren to fall 24-18. It was their fourth loss in the past seven weeks.

Before that they had a streaky win over the Panthers and were smashed by the Rabbitohs the week prior; inconsistency is hurting them and unless they find some 80-minute performances they won’t be sufficiently battle-hardened to figure in this year’s title race.

Meanwhile the Knights scraped home against the Eels in Newcastle last week, largely on the back of a gutsy Kurt Gidley try-saving tackle. It was their first win in four outings, after a narrow loss to the Roosters, a comprehensive home defeat to the Warriors and a thumping at the hands of the Storm.

While it’s mostly good news on the injury front for the Tigers, Newcastle’s injury ward continues to grow: last week they lost key playmaker Jarrod Mullen to a pectoral tear that will sideline him for at least two months. Mullen has played every game at halfback and the Knights are fortunate to have a player like Kurt Gidley to step in and carry the load.

With Gidley moving to the scrum base Wes Naiqama shifts to fullback, with Junior Saú rejoining the team in the centres. Their only other change sees Antonio Kaufusi join the interchange bench for Mark Taufua.

Meanwhile for the Tigers, UK-bound fullback Wade McKinnon has recovered from the hamstring twinge that saw him pull-out after the pre-game warm-up last week. (McKinnon needs just three more line-breaks for 100 in his career; he’ll be hoping to beat Tuqiri who needs seven to reach the mark.) His return sees Tim Moltzen back in the centres, while Mitch Brown moves to the right wing to cover for the injured Matt Utai (broken arm).

Keith Galloway returns to partner Aaron Woods in the front row, with Woods’ elevation relegating Bryce Gibbs to the bench. Ellis’ return pushes Liam Fulton to the bench. Beau Ryan and Andrew Fifita are the other interchange players.
Leichhardt Oval will represent a new challenge for the Knights – they haven’t played the joint-venture Wests Tigers there. Overall they have just two wins from eight games at the venue.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: There’s every chance Kurt Gidley will run on to Leichhardt Oval knowing he’s in the 17-man New South Wales squad for Origin II, which will be selected the day before this clash. If he is named, he’ll be out to confirm the talent that saw him included; if he’s not, it will just make him try harder in an effort to get Ricky Stuart thinking about him for Game Three.

Gidley has five try assists from seven games in 2011.
Lote Tuqiri and Tim Moltzen need to be watchful of the Newcastle right-side combination of fullback Wes Naiqama, Junior Saú and winger Akuila Uate. Uate ranks eighth in the NRL for tackle-breaks (55) and averages 135 metres; even when collared he’s a threat, with 10 offloads. Naiqama is in scintillating form – he scored an excellent try from a dummy-and-go last week with 10 monster tackle busts (total 41 to date) and 144 metres. 

Danger Sign: The Knights have scored 17 tries on the right edge compared to 11 on the left. Expect Gidley to send plenty of ball to the right to test out Tuqiri who may be a little ring-rusty in defence after his long lay-off.

Watch Out Knights: Gidley led by example last week in an area that’s been a real trouble spot for the Knights – stopping tries from select opposition passes close to their line.
They’ll really need to focus this week as the Tigers have scored 14 tries from passes – the second most behind the Sea Eagles. Meanwhile the Knights have leaked 12 tries this way – the fourth most in the comp. The bulk of Benji Marshall’s 13 try assists have come from passes so he’s obviously the danger man.

Also, the Knights need to watch the region in centre-field from 20 metres out, where they’re really vulnerable – 25 of their 37 tries conceded have originated from this distance and a worrying 10 have been scored under or adjacent to the goal posts – the third most leaked by any side.

One man they’ll have to keep tabs on is burly Andrew Fifita, by far and away the NRL’s most punishing front-rower. Last season Fifita tormented his coach with some ‘rocks’ or ‘diamonds’ performances. This year Sheens has him focused on a no-nonsense power game, and boy it’s paying off. Fifita has bullocked his way to 55 tackle-breaks (most by a forward and seventh overall in the NRL) in just an average 40 minutes of game time.

Danger Sign: Expect Benji Marshall to mix up his passing game, offloading the ball to inside runners like Gareth Ellis and Liam Fulton as well as to wide receivers like Blake Ayshford and Tim Moltzen. It will leave the Knights not knowing which way to look.

The home side will need to make good defensive reads and also keep ‘shutting the gate’ on the inside plays, or else points will flow.

Plays To Watch: Farah and Marshall dancing at the defensive line, offering the ball inside and out; Farah having a go from dummy-half (the Knights have given up four tries from the ruck, the second most by any side); Tuqiri winding up out wide in his comeback; Uate testing out Tuqiri; Gidley drifting across-field before putting runners in holes; grubbers and bombs testing the Tigers’ nerve – they’ve conceded nine tries from kicks to date.

Where It Will Be Won: Both sides have attacking flair but the stats point to this one being decided by attitude in defence.

There’s not much between them in attack, with the Knights making 1336 metres a game to the Tigers’1275, and the Tigers conceding 46 fewer metres to oppositions (1267 to 1313).

Both sides are locked on 4.4 line-breaks conceded. The Knights have let in 3.4 tries a game, the Tigers 3.5.
Defending against second phase could let down the visitors – they concede the second-most offloads (14.2 a game) while the Tigers make the sixth most with 12.7 each match.

The History: Played 15; Wests Tigers 8, Knights 7. The Tigers have won five of the past eight games including the past three.

Conclusion: Despite our suspicion that defence will be crucial there’s every chance this will be a high-scoring game. Over the past decade the Tigers have scored on average 26.7 points against the Knights, winning seven of their 11 encounters.

Anyone wishing to have a flutter should think about backing Robbie Farah to score – he has a team-high 13 tries from 21 appearances at Leichhardt Oval. Farah has also been on the winning side in each of his past six games there, while he has sung the victory song after Knights games on five of seven occasions.

The Tigers have been only average over the past month, although there were signs in the second half against the Dragons last week that when they focus on discipline they are capable of top-level play. But the return to Leichhardt Oval is the swinger for us. Tigers by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Paul Mellor.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.