Bulldogs v Knights
ANZ Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

While plenty of attention is being thrown on the 1 v 2 match between Manly and Melbourne, this match-up between the Bulldogs and Knights has just as much if not more significance.

It is the last throw of the dice for the Bulldogs who thought they might have been buried last week after going down to Manly. Newcastle’s defeat to Brisbane on Monday night didn’t quite open the door for them… but it did unlock it.

It would take two biggish wins from the 10th-placed Bulldogs and help from others – a virtual miracle, actually – but they are mathematically still alive in the premiership. Even with two wins their poor differential, currently at -64, will likely be the death of them but you can be sure they’ll scrap tooth and nail just in case.

The Knights are also now in desperation mode. They hold on to eighth spot despite the loss to Brisbane, but only by differential from South Sydney. Now they must keep winning and hope the bunnies lose; or, if they lose, hope the same fate befalls the Rabbitohs.

Souths do have a tough assignment in Brisbane this weekend but the Newcastle boys are all about controlling their own future.

The Bulldogs have kept the same 17 players that had their chances against Manly before falling short. Halfback Trent Hodkinson is in some doubt though with a leg injury.

For the Knights, the Monday night loss left them bloodied and bruised. Junior Sa’u and Matt Hilder were banged up and won’t play. This sees Keith Lulia comes into the centres. Zane Tetevano comes into the side at second row with Chris Houston reverting to lock and Cameron Ciraldo hitting the bench.

Marvin Karawana and Mark Taufua have been added to the reserves list, which is currently boasting five names.

Watch Out Bulldogs: You won’t find him on top of any league-leading statistics but Knights forward Chris Houston is a huge key to this game. He represents a breed of footballer coveted by many coaches and teams. He is a workhorse in defence, making almost 36 tackles a match, but he doesn’t shirk his offensive work also. Houston is averaging 78 metres a week but bare in mind he has come back from a long stint away from football also. His rangy frame has a little footwork hidden inside, helping him to six line-breaks and 47 tackle-breaks. His offload tally of just 13 is odd because as a youngster he was prolific… perhaps put it down to coach’s orders? But his value is also best noted in the fact he leads the Knights in decoy runs and is second in support plays. If you added those metres he’d be kicking some serious butt. Oh… by the way… he averages 71.4 minutes a game.

Danger Sign: The Bulldogs can’t just assume Houston is always a decoy runner. While he is used extensively in this way, the Newcastle halves are clever enough to give him the ball if a play is unfolding and Houston is commanding no attention.

Watch Out Knights: Bulldogs’ fullback Ben Barba is chasing down Nathan Merritt in the top try-scoring stakes but he is also working on perhaps a more attainable Bulldogs club record. He is four tries behind Merritt with just two games left but with 17 tries from 22 appearances, Barba requires just two more to overtake Rod Silva (18 in 1999) for the most tries by a Canterbury fullback in one season. Nine of his tries this year have come during games played at ANZ Stadium and nine have been from within his own half, making him one of the excitement machines of 2011.

Danger Sign: The Knights must kick and chase well. The Bulldogs lead the NRL in line-breaks from kick returns (with 12) and Barba has claimed nine of those! If they kick to him on the full and then wander down without much purpose the dynamic custodian will tear them to shreds. The Knights are ranked 10th when it comes to poor kick chase… they’d better lift their games.

Plays To Watch: Akuila Uate every time he gets the ball; likewise Ben Barba; short-side scrum plays; outside-inside passes to flying fullbacks.

Where It Will Be Won: On the edges. Usually the Knights are all about getting the ball to the wings of Uate and McManus and they may well keep trying the same but considering both sides have struggled defensively on the edges it is this area they’ll both need to control.

The Bulldogs have conceded 38 tries on the edges of the ruck, 19 on each side. Newcastle are better overall at 30 tries put past them on the edges but they have leaked 20 on the right, and just 10 on the left. The weak right edge (Knights’ left-side defenders) is the worst of any side still in finals contention.

Both sides need to make better decisions defensively when the play comes a few passes off the ruck and they need to make sure one-on-one tackles are effective. The Bulldogs are overall effective in defence 86.3 per cent of the time while the Knights are at 84.5 per cent. This is the second worst rate in the NRL. The Knights have made significantly more one-on-one tackles though: 490 to 398.

Look for the fullbacks, Barba and Kurt Gidley, to chine in around the edges often and don’t be surprised if edge-running forwards have a field day. Greg Eastwood off the bench is one to watch.

The History: Played 34; Bulldogs 17, Knights 16, drawn 1. The Knights have won four of the past five against the Bulldogs. The ’Dogs last beat the Newcastle boys back in 2009. At ANZ Stadium the Bulldogs have prevailed six of the 10 times the two clubs have battled. The winning team has scored somewhere between 20-30 points in each of the past seven clashes between the clubs.  

Conclusion: The Knights head into this massive contest off a short turnaround. A loss won’t bury them – but they should treat it as though it would. Regardless of what happens they’ll have a chance to leapfrog Souths in the final round when they meet each other… but why leave it so late? A good win here, coupled with a Souths’ loss, would hand them differential breathing space even if they were to lose in the final round. This motivation should be enough to have them rise to the occasion.

Yes, the Bulldogs still have a sniff, but they need a huge win. If they don’t jump out of the blocks quickly their desire may start to fade. (They do owe their captain Andrew Ryan a good finish though.)

Look to the Knights in a close one, especially if Hodkinson is out. But don’t bet the farm.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & David Abood; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.