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Knights v Rabbitohs
Ausgrid Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Well, it doesn’t get much better than this when it comes to final-round blockbusters, as the winner progresses to the finals and the loser has their passports stamped for the end-of-season trip.

Yep, it’s winner take all on Friday night in Newcastle, as the eighth-placed Knights try to stay ahead of the ninth-placed Rabbitohs in a battle to the death.

As is tradition in the Steel City, the last home match of the year is the ‘Old Boys’ game, ensuring plenty of emotion and fervour already. The Knights’ legends of the past are honoured and the crowd will be bursting at the seams, looking to be fed rabbit stew.

Since implementing the tradition in 1998 the Knights have a 10-3 record in the match but perhaps they are yet to play a more important one than this.

It also represents the final home game for veteran Adam MacDougall… some wags joke the evergreen centre should play in the Old Boys game as well as the main event. While a century of top grade tries now appears beyond him (he has 92), ‘Mad Dog’ will still be looking to go out with at least one more to his name. The Rabbitohs have let opposition centres score 20 tries this year… so he’ll get more than a good sniff.

The form for the home side hasn’t been good recently – they’ve lost three on the trot. They were run down by the Bulldogs last week despite leading 22-6 at halftime and have now failed to score in the last 141 minutes of second-half football – a serious concern considering they have conceded 62 points in that time.

They have responded by moving Kurt Gidley back to fullback, Ryan Stig to five-eighth and dropping youngster Peter Mata’utia.

Injury has ruled Keith Lulia out, meaning Siuatonga Likiliki remains in the side at centre after his debut last week and Adam MacDougall fills the other centre position.

Chris Houston moves from lock to second row, with Joel Edwards joining the back of the scrum and Zane Tetavano shifting back to the bench. Marvin Karawana is gone, with Matt Hilder, Cameron Ciraldo and Mark Taufua new faces on an extended bench.

The Rabbitohs are making their almost ritualistic late-season run, but this time they’re desperate for it to not finish just short, as has also become somewhat customary.

However, they have been dealt a massive blow with Greg Inglis ruled out for the year with an ankle problem. John Sutton returns in the No.6  jersey for Inglis who substituted last week, while Nathan Merritt also returns from injury at fullback. James Roberts shifts to the bench, while Chris McQueen moves into the centres and Dylan Farrell slots onto the wing.

Chris Sandow is on track to become the competition’s leading point-scorer and the first Rabbitoh since Eric Simms in 1970 to break 200 in a year. He sits on top of the list with 187 points, seven clear of Benji Marshall and 13 ahead of James Maloney. He’ll need to muster some points as Marshall’s Wests Tigers are expected to put a few on the board against the Sharks.

Watch Out Knights: If the Knights are to prevail they need to shut down the attacking brilliance of hooker Issac Luke and halfback Sandow. Luke is the only player in the side to have won at Ausgrid Stadium while playing for Souths and has missed just 49 minutes of potential game time this entire season. If they were able to win this game he’ll have a chance to be the first hooker in NRL history to eclipse 3000 running metres during a season (2766). He averages 120 metres a match, has six line-breaks, two from dummy-half, eight line-break assists, three tries, seven try assists, 44 offloads and 107 tackle-breaks. Sandow, who is probably breaking Rabbitohs fans’ hearts with some inspired play before he leaves for the Eels, has tallied seven line-breaks, eight line-break assists, six tries and 16 try assists.

Danger Sign: Luke isn’t afraid to run from dummy-half – with 251 runs for the season he leads the NRL comfortably. While his scoots haven’t produced mountains of breaks for him, they have ensured the opposition defence compresses in, creating space for other players. Newcastle markers need to be ready to work overtime so team-mates don’t have to come in and compensate. They’re used to it though, as their markers have made the third-most tackles in the NRL.

Sandow possesses all the tricks. He can run, pass and of course kick as good as if not better than most. Watch for his chip-and-chase.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: The reshuffle in the backline means the Knights will try to exploit the edge defenders. The sight of Shaune Corrigan being brushed aside for a try last week will have the Knights’ fringe and wide-playing guys excited. Defending in the centres is probably the hardest part of this sport as you are often isolated against big men who have multiple options. The Knights will look to go left to get at Corrigan but they’ll also look to give McQueen and co. a thorough testing by going to their strong right side where Mad Dog and Akuila Uate dwell. The Knights have scored 36 tries on the right side and just 23 on the left… you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out they like playing towards Uate.

Danger Sign: The Knights could really do with a more dominant display from Jarrod Mullen. After a little game time to blow out some cobwebs hopefully Mullen can shake free of the niggling injuries he seems to be carrying and provide some solid direction. If he fires, the scoreboard could get a workout.

Plays To Watch: Sandow chip-and-chase; Mullen 40/20s; Nathan Merritt slicing through the middle in support; Kurt Gidley joining the playmakers; Uate’s dummy-half carries; Crocker hunting for big hits; Costigan stalking him right back.

Where It Will Be Won: Goal line defence. When it comes down to it and both sides find themselves desperately defending for their season with their backs against the goal line – this is where champion teams are made.

Unfortunately for the Rabbitohs though, the news is not good: they have the worst goal line defence in the NRL! The Rabbitohs have leaked a staggering 56 tries from inside 10 metres of their own line… more than Cronulla, Canberra, the Gold Coast… more than anybody. It is more than Manly (30) and Melbourne (21) combined.

The Knights have leaked 38 close-range tries in 2011, so they have the edge. With some new backline combinations it could be further drama for the Rabbitohs. They need to muscle up… or face extinction.  

The History: Played 31; Knights 24, Rabbitohs 7. The Knights have won five of the past eight against Souths and have long dominated the match-ups between the clubs – although the Rabbitohs were victorious the last time the teams met in 2010. But at Ausgrid Stadium the Rabbitohs have really struggled, winning just two of 17 matches between the teams at the venue. The last time they got up in Novocastrian territory was in 2007. Since starting to celebrate ‘Old Boys’ day on the final home game of the year in 1998 the Knights have a 10-3 record and overall since inception they have gone 17-6 in the last home game of the year.

Conclusion: They have terrible form leading into this clash but you get the feeling the Knights will lift in front of a packed house and send the Rabbitohs packing. It’s no foregone conclusion but losing Inglis was critical for the Bunnies.

We’ll opt for Newcastle in an exciting affair, giving them the ‘reward’ of a sudden-death date with Melbourne in Melbourne.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.