Knights v Broncos preview

Newcastle Knights v Brisbane Broncos
Hunter Stadium
Friday 8.30pm (AEDT)

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: which of these sides can adapt best without their key contributors Kurt Gidley and Corey Parker who were last week struck down with injuries that will keep them sidelined for lengthy periods?

Playmaker Gidley’s shoulder dislocation sustained in the opening six minutes of the Knights’ 18-6 win over the Sharks last Sunday could sideline him for three to 12 weeks or even longer depending on the results of scans, while Parker will be off the scene for up to six games after detaching ligaments from his left thumb in Brisbane’s heartbreaking last-minute 28-26 loss to North Queensland.

Gidley’s injury scraped the gloss off the Knights’ opening win for 2012, with the club unable to ignore one giant elephant in the room: Newcastle have won just four of 15 games without Gidley since 2008. The upside of course is that tally rose by one after Sunday’s win but, given it was against a Sharks side that repeatedly turned its jaws on itself in attack, and given Gidley’s crucial role in coach Wayne Bennett’s plans, it remains to be seen whether they can hold their own in the interim.

They’ll get a good barometer this Friday up against a Broncos’ side that will be focused on making up for an uncharacteristically ill-disciplined performance against the Cowboys. Twice the Broncos allowed the whippet-like speed of Matt Bowen to burn them, and each time from just a half-chance. First they committed the cardinal sin of offering their opponents a staggered defensive line; then they clocked off in set-play defence, with Bowen punishing them from the base of a scrum. These lapses were inexcusable – especially from a side coach Anthony Griffin has moulded into the best defensively in the league.

In Knights team changes, Ryan Stig has been named at five-eighth to cover for Gidley – although there are rumours Darius Boyd could actually suit up in the No.6. Given the last time Wayne Bennett pulled that card was when Darren Lockyer shifted from fullback to five-eighth mid-career at the Broncos, it won’t surprise anyone should that eventuate.

Centre Timana Tahu is back after his week’s suspension, with Zeb Taia named to start in the second row and Alex McKinnon reverting to the bench. Evarn Tuimavave and Marvin Filipo form an extended interchange.

Meanwhile in Broncos personnel changes Ben Te’o shifts from second row to lock to cover for Parker, with captain Sam Thaiday moving to the back row and Petero Civoniceva starting at prop. Scott Anderson joins the interchange.

Watch Out Knights: Right centre Justin Hodges will give Timana Tahu a real workout. Hodges used his trademark right-foot step to huge effect last time these sides met, strolling over for a try. And last week he terrorised the Cowboys out wide running 155 metres and adding a try assist, a line-break, two offloads and five tackle-breaks. Throw in Alex Glenn and Jharal Yow Yeh and the Broncos boast a triple threat on the right edge.

If the Knights don’t make smart reads and wrap up the ball carrier they’ll get burned down this corridor – already Newcastle are conceding the most offloads (17.5), while the Broncos rank third for making offloads (12.5).

Danger Sign: If the Broncos ‘spot’ Jarrod Mullen in defence it’s because they know he can be a pushover on occasion. That’s precisely what eventuated last clash, with Alex Glenn brushing through the Knights’ No.7 to score a soft try.

In fact, the whole Newcastle player roster needs to muscle up – through 165 minutes of football to date the Knights are missing the third-most tackles (36 a game). Meanwhile the Broncos are proving resolute again – their 23 misses a game are the fewest in the NRL.

Watch Out Broncos: With Gidley gone a lot more falls on the shoulders of Darius Boyd. The fullback was a little quiet against the Sharks but really got involved first up against the Dragons, making 128 metres and three tackle-breaks. Boyd loves to link with his left-side supports where he’ll find willing accomplices in James McManus, Timana Tahu and rookie Alex McKinnon. Former Dragon McKinnon, 20, looks right at home in first grade – last week he made 16 hit-ups for 141 metres with a try assist.

On the other side of the field don’t be surprised if Wes Naiqama runs the footy a lot more than he has during the opening fortnight of the premiership. To date he has a combined 186 metres and five tackle-breaks; last season he averaged 103 metres with four tackle-breaks and an offload each game. He also managed a try assist every three games – which means he’s due this week. Naiqama requires just six runs to tally 1000 career sprints.

Danger Sign: If Jarrod Mullen is given time to get his clearing kicks away the Broncos’ forwards will get turned around all night. Mullen was responsible for booting 504 of the Knights’ 621 kick metres last week – with the Sharks making just 335 metres all up.

Another red flag will be raised if Mullen runs the ball often early – he’s among one of the toughest No.7s to halt in midfield, averaging four tackle-breaks a game already.

Kade Snowden v Ben Hannant & Petero Civoniceva: Blues hopeful Snowden will treat this game like an Origin trial given he’s up against Maroons representatives Hannant and Civoniceva. Snowden was outstanding against the Sharks, making 20 hit-ups and 166 metres in 54 minutes of quality game time that also included six tackle busts and two offloads. The sell-out home crowd is certain to rev him up for a blinder again. Plus, he needs just 98 metres this week to rack up 10 kilometres in career hit-ups!

Meanwhile coach Griffin will be demanding more from his bookends who were strangled out of the contest last week; Hannant made just nine hit-ups for 61 metres, Civoniceva 10 runs for 81 metres and Josh McGuire and Sam Thaiday a combined 16 hit-ups for 130 metres. That’s not a lot of go-forward. In fact, Civoniceva has broken 100 metres just once in his past six games, so a return to his bullocking best is on the cards.

Where It Will Be Won: In territory. Both sides are having difficulty carving out huge metres – the Broncos rank 9th (1326) and the Knights 10th (1316) for metres gained, so whichever team can get across the advantage line more often and builds pressure will be in the box seat.

But they also need to defend their hard-fought gains – and in this facet the Knights need dramatic improvement. While the Broncos concede the second-fewest metres to oppositions (1181) the Knights are leaking the most territory, with a whopping 1511 metres conceded each week so far. In itself that’s not so surprising – the Bennett-coached Dragons conceded the most metres in each of the past two seasons. This smacks of an emphasis on discipline rather than giving away silly penalties. But against the Broncos’ mobile pack and slick backline, they may want to test the referees’ patience a little more this week, or else hooker Andrew McCullough will have a field day feeding supports.

The History: Played 37; Broncos 25, Knights 12. The Broncos have won seven of the past 10 clashes, including the past two. They hold a 12-9 advantage at Hunter Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Broncos dominated to win 26-6 in wet conditions in Newcastle in Round 24 last year. The Broncos led 10-6 at halftime before piling on 16 unanswered points in the second half through tries to Jharal Yow Yeh, Alex Glenn and Ben Hunt. The Knights were their own worst enemies, completing just 59 per cent of their sets and missing a whopping 42 tackles – 19 more than their opponents. Fullback Josh Hoffman starred for the Broncos, making 187 metres plus two line-breaks and a try assist. Knights winger Akuila Uate had a horror night, making three errors, while team-mate Chris Houston was sin-binned 10 minutes before halftime for a professional foul.    

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: The Broncos should be able to cover for Parker’s loss better than the Knights patch up things without Gidley. The home crowd will likely be a factor but we can’t see the Broncos putting together back-to-back lacklustre efforts. Broncos by eight points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld); delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats