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Knights v Dragons
Hunter Stadium
Thursday 7.30pm (AEDT)

The 2012 season kicks off with a master-v-apprentice showdown between former Dragons coach Wayne Bennett and rookie St George Illawarra clipboard holder Steve Price that’s sure to ignite a new and enduring NRL rivalry.

Darius Boyd’s defection to Newcastle to follow his mentor Bennett after the pair were majorly responsible for guiding the Dragons to two Minor Premierships and Grand Final glory over the past three years rips a huge hole in the Red V attack. How Price and the Dragons players weld that hole; how the players respond to Price; and of course how much improvement Bennett is able to extract from the Knights from the get-go, are among the most riveting sub-plots of the new season.

Rejuvenation is the buzzword up in the Hunter, with nine new faces from the 17 that lost to the Storm in Week One of last year’s Finals Series. They have a new centres combination in Wes Naiqama and Timana Tahu and a new starting front row in ex-Shark Kade Snowden and ex-Dragon Adam Cuthbertson. Boyd’s arrival allows captain Kurt Gidley to push in to five-eighth; favourite son Danny Buderus assumes the hooker’s role; Zeb Taia returns in the second row; and Matt Hilder and promising rookie Alex McKinnon – also ‘poached’ from the Dragons by maker-of-men Bennett – sit on the interchange.

Newcastle played out a scrappy 18-all draw with the Panthers in their first trial in 2012 before clicking to gear with an impressive 22-18 win over the Sharks a fortnight ago, with the ageing Tahu and Buderus showing they still have spark. In particular, 34-year-old Buderus linked well with his halves.

Meanwhile the Dragons gave little away fielding an experimental side that lost 28-18 in their first trial against the Bulldogs before a stronger unit fell 18-12 to the Cowboys after trailing 18-nil early. But then they got down to business with a clinical 18-12 victory over the Rabbitohs in a bruising Charity Shield encounter two weeks ago.

Coach Price hasn’t sprung too many surprises in his 17: Kyle Stanley inherits Boyd’s No.1 jersey, tidy defender Beau Scott shifts from second row to centre, while former Warrior Jeremy Latimore partners Michael Weyman at prop in Dan Hunt’s absence. Mitch Rein has won the starting hooker’s role with Nathan Fien in the bench alongside ex-Cowboy Leeson Ah Mau, Trent Merrin and Jack De Belin.

It’s a huge game for Dragons skipper Ben Hornby who joins Norm Provan as the only St George, Illawarra or Dragons player to notch 250 first grade games. Winger Jason Nightingale needs to score to notch 50 tries.

Newcastle finished 2011 with the third-largest average home crowd (19,176) behind the Broncos and Bulldogs – given the Bennett, Boyd and Buderus factors it’s likely they’ll overhaul the Bulldogs at season’s end, starting this week with a response nudging the Hunter Stadium crowd capacity of 33,000.   

Watch Out Knights: Darius Boyd may have swapped teams but the Dragons will still fancy their chances in attack with Jamie Soward in their ranks. The stoic No.6 was a bigger threat to oppositions than Boyd was last year, making 18 try assists – 12 came from his trusty boot, three from passes and three were from line-breaks (the equal most originating from a line bust). That latter stat shows how dangerous his scheming can be when playing deep and the Knights will need to be careful they don’t offer him a broken defensive line.

It will be interesting to see what effect Bennett’s hard line has had on the Knights’ defence. Last year Newcastle conceded plenty of gains through lacklustre tackling; they registered the sixth-most missed tackles and conceded the most offloads and the fifth-most line-breaks. They will need to have improved to hold out the Dragons, who made the third-most line-breaks in 2011 (4.5 a game) on the way to the most metres each match (1427).

Danger Sign: Kurt Gidley needs to be careful with his passing game now he’s back in the No.6 jersey after a few years’ absence, and especially when he’s targeting Uate on the right wing. Dragons left centre Matt Cooper is an intercept specialist – he made the second-most in the comp last year and you can bet he’ll be keeping a careful watch for any ill-timed passes or pushed passes from the Newcastle skipper.

Watch Out Dragons: Newcastle were the blockbusting attacking side in the NRL last year. A total of 34 of their 72 tries originated from a line-break – the equal most by any side. They led all teams for tackle-breaks with 41 a game and were equal best with the Wests Tigers for busting the defensive line, averaging 4.9 every 80 minutes. Winger Akuila Uate made 152 tackle busts (NRL-high) and 19 line-breaks, with centre Wes Naiqama adding 68 tackle-breaks and 10 line-breaks from only 17 games. Other prominent tackle-busting Knights included Kurt Gidley (68), Jarrod Mullen (56), James McManus (56) and forwards Chris Houston (53) and Joel Edwards (47). Add Darius Boyd to the mix (109 tackle-breaks and 10 line breaks) and it’s clear the Knights’ backline will target the Dragons’ defence out wide.  

Danger Sign: Newcastle didn’t score a lot of points on the left side of the field in 2011 – they didn’t need to, given they have Uate on the right wing. In fact, they crossed for just eight tries in the left corner, compared to 22 on the right. Over the past three seasons, with Darius Boyd at fullback, the Dragons built the benchmark left-side attack. With Boyd now in Newcastle colours, they’ll target both sides of the field. Indecision over where the attack is heading could catch the Dragons out – with Buderus likely to seize the opportunity to direct a surprise attack in centre field. In particular, don’t be surprised if they cross from close range near the Dragons’ right upright; it’s a potential weak spot.

Akuila Uate v Brett Morris: Two of the game’s most explosive wingers lock horns. The NSW Origin pair enjoy a keen rivalry but haven’t opposed each other since the Dragons beat the Knights in Newcastle in Round 25, 2010. Both were key contributors with Morris scoring a try, making 123 metres, six tackle busts and a line-break while Uate pumped out 15 runs for 124 metres with six tackle-breaks. Expect tireless forays from each as they strive to outdo each other.

The History: Played 24; Dragons 15, Knights 9. The journey up the F3 holds few qualms for the Dragons who remain unbeaten at Hunter Stadium since 2003. In fact they hold a staggering 11-2 record in Newcastle! That said, the Knights are on the verge of posting consecutive wins over the Red V for the first time since 2003 – and they’ll be buoyed at the news Wayne Bennett has lost a Round 1 clash just four times since 1987.

The Last Time They Met: Newcastle squeezed home 14-10 at WIN Stadium in Round 17 last year against a Dragons side missing a handful of stars to Origin. The home side led 6-nil through a Reece Symonds try and Ben Hornby penalty goal before two tries in six minutes midway through the second stanza saw the visitors wrestle the ascendancy. Symonds’ second try with eight minutes remaining wasn’t enough to bridge the gap. Wes Naiqama was a standout for the Knights, running 143 metres, while Symonds was a sensation with three line-breaks and two tries. Alex McKinnon, now at the Knights, made 23 tackles in the centres for the Dragons.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: While the Dragons love the atmosphere of playing before a parochial Newcastle home crowd it will be a different proposition this time around. The action will be fast and furious and the result may well boil down to commitment and a try-saving tackle or two. Pride will carry the Dragons a long way but if Newcastle are serious about a premiership tilt expect them to make a statement right here. The Knights by six points.  

Footnote: Only twice have the Dragons gone on to play semi-finals footy after winning the annual Charity Shield (in 2004 and 2011). That’s some monkey on their back.

Televised: Live – Channel 9, 7.30pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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