Warriors v Knights
Mt Smart Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm (NZ time)
 
The relative positions of these sides provides huge incentive this week, with the winner set to push into the safety zone of semi-finals qualification while the loser will be left to look over their shoulders nervously at some hungry chasers intent on closing the gap on their claim to a top-eight berth.

The sixth-placed Warriors had their four-game winning sequence halted by a Peter Wallace field-goal in Brisbane last week but they lost few admirers in defeat, their whippet-like attack and punishing defence showing they are up to the mark at the business end of the season.

Meanwhile the Knights cruised to their third straight win when monstering the Raiders at home, maintaining their grip on seventh place. They are level with the Warriors (and Wests Tigers) on 26 competition points but trail this week’s opponent on points differential (24 the gap).

Two of the game’s best wingers, Manu Vatuvei and Akuila Uate, lock horns in what shapes as one of the match-ups of 2011.

The Knights will have a bunch of nerves boarding the flight to cross the Tasman for coach Rick Stone’s 50th game at the helm – they’ve lost seven of their past eight clashes against the Kiwis and have lost their past five games at Mt Smart Stadium. 

But the Warriors need to stay buoyant after last week’s defeat – they’ve won just three of 17 games the week after featuring in a match decided by one point or less.

In Warriors’ personnel changes Joel Moon, a late withdrawal last week, returns at centre pushing Lewis Brown to the extended interchange. Jacob Lillyman has been named to start at prop with Ben Matulino reverting to the interchange, while Ukuma Ta’ai bumps Elijah Taylor from the pine.  

Meanwhile Knights’ team changes include Joel Edwards starting at lock, with Cameron Ciraldo benched; Richie Fa’aoso returns on the interchange.

Watch Out Warriors: Newcastle have ‘owned’ attacking play in the NRL over the second half of the season. They’ve gained the most territory, made the most line-breaks (49) and tackle-breaks (408) in the past 10 weeks. Akuila Uate leads the way with 116 line-breaks, the most by any player.

Uate and veteran centre Adam MacDougall tore the Raiders to shreds down the right side of the field last week, MacDougall crossing for a double and making a long break and offering the final pass for Uate to score his 12th try of the season. ‘Mad Dog’ also powered his way to 10 tackle-breaks.

The pair should be in the thick of the action again given the right fringe is the Warriors’ weak point of the field, with 16 tries conceded one man in from the sideline.

The Warriors need to steel their defence – they rank second worst for missed tackles, falling off runners an average 37.5 times a game. Players who miss the most each week are James Maloney (4.6) and Shaun Johnson (3.5), plus centre Joel Moon (nearly four a game), hooker Aaron Heremaia (3.5) and back-rower Feleti Mateo (3.4).

But the Warriors shouldn’t just focus on the Knights’ backs – second-rower Chris Houston is in rousing form. Last week he made three line busts plus a try assist, 123 metres and six tackle-breaks. 

Danger Sign: The Warriors’ back three must remain alert every time the Knights cart the ball back towards halfway – their No.7 Jarrod Mullen leads the comp for 40/20s (with four) and you can bet he’ll look to add to his tally here. Mullen kicked a cracker against the Raiders last week and the Knights subsequently hit pay dirt.

Watch Out Knights: It’ll be bombs away in Auckland – especially if there’s any rain around. The Warriors have hoisted the second most high balls (57) and cross-field bombs (55) all season. And it’s paid off – they’ve scored 21 tries from kicks, the equal most in the competition.

Meanwhile the Knights’ wingers have had problems with cross-field bombs, defusing just 52 per cent aimed their way.
The Knights need to be aware of the impulsive brilliance of Warriors’ halves Shaun Johnson and James Maloney.

Johnson scored a dazzling solo try against the Broncos last week, beating seven tacklers in a 75-metre run to the line, while a Maloney chip, chase and regather ended up with fullback Kevin Locke diving over in the corner. The tries emphasised how damaging the Warriors can be from long range – they’ve scored 14 tries from over halfway, the second most to date.

Danger Sign: Newcastle need to ensure they kick to space or Warriors’ fullback Kevin Locke can give his side huge momentum from the back. Locke averages 14 metres each return and will look to link with Manu Vatuvei on the left edge at every opportunity. 

Plays To Watch: Shaun Johnson’s electrifying bursts – just eight games into his career he’s already notched six of the 11 longest runs by any Warriors halfback in recorded stats history; Manu Vatuvei’s finishes; Feliti Mateo’s tackle-breaks and offloads; Kurt Gidley’s involvement from fullback; Jarrod Mullen calling the shots; Akuila Uate’s busts from dummy-half. 

Where It Will Be Won: This brews as a battle between the Warriors’ flair and the Knights’ firepower. 

The Warriors rank second for promoting second-phase play, averaging 13.6 offloads a game, while the Knights concede the second-most offloads (13.2). The Knights’ weakness at limiting offloads could be linked to their low dominant-tackle count – they’ve tallied 261, the second fewest in the competition and a galaxy away from the Dragons’ league-leading 402. Their preference for one-on-one tackles could also be a factor – they lead the NRL with 448. It’s okay when they get their opponent on the deck – but with limited numbers in the tackle it makes it easier for players to offload against them.  

Meanwhile the Knights will look to bust the Warriors open. And why not? They are the most damaging runners of the football, leading the comp for line-breaks (five a game) and tackle-breaks (41.1 average).

The match-up between Vatuvei and Uate looms as one of the highlights of the season. With 38 tries under his belt at home Vatuvei needs just two more to overtake Stacey Jones as leading tryscorer at their Auckland HQ. 

The History: Played 27; Knights 14, Warriors 12, drawn 1. The Warriors have an outstanding recent record, winning seven of the past eight clashes between the sides including a 25-16 win in Newcastle in Round 10. The Knights have won seven of the 14 games at Mt Smart Stadium, with one drawn – but they’ve lost their past five at the venue.

Conclusion: If these teams both turn up switched on and ready to go this promises to be one of the games of the season. Despite their loss last week our gut feeling is with the Warriors. The memory of their soul-destroying first-week exit from the semi-finals last year, when they finished fifth after the regular rounds, will have them intent on climbing as high as they can to avoid a repeat in 2011. 

The home advantage can’t be denied either – Warriors by six points.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm. 

* Stats: NRL Stats