Knights v Titans preview

Knights v Titans
Ausgrid Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Most footy comp tipsters will be ticking the box alongside Newcastle as they continue their fight for a semi-finals berth – but fans shouldn’t underestimate the grit left in the Titans as they battle to climb from the cellar to avoid their first wooden spoon.

Newcastle’s 18-nil whitewash of the Sharks last week sees them well positioned to advance past Round 26. They sit in eighth position on the ladder on 22 competition points, equal with the Wests Tigers but relegated one spot lower due to their inferior points differential (15 to -5). But this is a game they can’t afford to drop – a loss and a Panthers win over the Cowboys would see them slip to ninth, only ahead of the Bulldogs on for-and-against should that side defeat the Roosters on Saturday. 

You can bet the Titans will be fired up. One of the success stories of the NRL over the past four years, pride will ensure they give it their all as they struggle to stay in touch with other wooden spoon contenders the Roosters, Eels and Raiders.

And as we saw last week with Canberra’s miraculous turnaround from being held scoreless one week to trouncing the premiers the next, seven days is a long time in the NRL.

Following the news fullback Wes Naiqama (triceps) is unlikely to return in 2011, injury has again struck the Knights’ ranks with Richie Fa’aoso succumbing to a niggling hamstring strain. His starting position in the front row has gone to Evarn Tuimavave. But in good news Neville Costigan, a late withdrawal last week, is expected to be fully fit to suit up in the second row, pushing Cameron Ciraldo onto an extended bench of five.

Prompting another huge sigh of relief for Newcastle fans, halfback Jarrod Mullen has been named and is expected to play, despite slightly aggravating his pectoral muscle injury against the Sharks. 

Meanwhile Titans coach John Cartwright has made two changes to the 17 that were overhauled by the Cowboys at home last week. Fullback Luke Capewell makes way for Jordan Rankin, while injury to winger Steve Michaels will see Dominique Peyroux make his NRL debut.

Expect this game to be tight – five of the total seven clashes between the sides have been decided by single figures.

Watch Out Knights: Not much has gone right for the Titans in 2011 but prop Luke Bailey and lock Greg Bird have the aggression required to steer the pack to a dominant display.

Bailey has been a standout in a beaten side all year, his 125.4 metres a game ranking him seventh among all NRL props. And Bird’s team-high 128 metres plus 49 tackle-breaks and 17 offloads make him a crucial cog if the Titans are going to spark something.

They’ll also look for some forceful running from back-rower Mark Minichiello and centre William Zillman (54 and 50 tackle-breaks respectively) plus explosive winger David Mead (nine tries and a team-high 10 line-breaks).

Scott Prince will be looking to salvage pride with a late flurry of form.

And you can bet Knights discard Beau Henry will be pumped for a huge game up against his former club. No doubt he’ll be drawing inspiration from the recent performance of fellow unwanted Novocastrian Cory Paterson, who scored for the Cowboys against his former team-mates in Round 18. If Henry were to cross for a try he’d become the first No.6 in history to leave the club and return to notch a four-pointer.

Danger Sign: Prince is at his best when taking on the opposition line and if he runs a couple of times midway through tackle counts you’ll know he’s intent on making something happen.

And while William Zillman’s shift to the centres now sees him fill a more structured role expect him to still trail Prince in support – Zillman has made 88 supports to date, the fifth most by any player.

Watch Out Titans: The Knights’ powerful running could create migraines. They rank equal first for line-breaks with 4.7 each game and rank a close second to the Cowboys for tackle-breaks, making 40.2 a game.

Akuila Uate will be looking to add to his 12 line-breaks (fifth most) and competition-leading 101 tackle-breaks. Junior Sa’u (43), Chris Houston (38), Jarrod Mullen (37), Kurt Gidley (35), Joel Edwards and James McManus (34 each) will lend solid support.

The Titans will need to do better than their average 4.4 line-breaks conceded a game.

Danger Sign: If Junior Sa’u and Kurt Gidley are permitted to offload they’ll create plenty of scoring opportunities. Sa’u has 16 offloads for the year along with four try assists and two line-break assists. Meanwhile Gidley will look to get a late assist away in the centre of the ruck; he has made 12 offloads with six try assists and a similar number of line-break assists.

Plays To Watch: Uate carting it up from dummy-half and exploding in open space when given the chance; Gidley weaving deception with the ball in two hands; Neville Costigan stopping Titans’ forwards in their tracks with punishing front-on hits; Jarrod Mullen’s varied kicking game; David Mead’s speed; Prince’s show-and-go and grubbers into the Knights’ in-goal; Luke Bailey and Greg Bird working in tandem to bend the Knights’ defensive line.

Where It Will Be Won: In attitude and commitment to defence. The Knights have the semi-finals in sight, while every member of the Titans’ squad won’t want to go down in the club’s record books as being the first to be left holding the wooden spoon.

The Knights hold the edge when it comes to points conceded, averaging just 17.4 to the Titans’ NRL-high 24.1. But there’s nothing between the sides when assessing missed tackles – the home team leaks 34.1 a game (10th most), while the Titans fall off 34.5 a game (11th most). Who will be the more committed?

The History: Played 7; Knights 4, Titans 3. The Knights hold bragging rights with a 24-16 win at Skilled Park in Round 16 last year – but just seven weeks before that the Titans won 38-36 at Ausgrid Stadium. The Knights hold a 2-1 advantage in Newcastle.

Conclusion: Ausgrid Stadium is certain to fill with a decent crowd despite the low ranking of this week’s opponent. The Knights are averaging 18,581 fans each week, the third biggest home crowd in the NRL in 2011.

With vocal support and the prize of a semi-finals berth within reach the home side should be a shade too strong. Newcastle by six points.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – 2pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats