Certainly the ANZ Stadium turnstiles are set for a workout as fans flock to view the head-to-head battle between mercurial fullbacks Ben Barba and Darius Boyd.
Arguably the ’Dogs have surprised even their most loyal fans in winning their first three games of 2012, most recently accounting for the Warriors in a high-speed contest in Auckland. If they win this weekend it will be the first time they’ve strung together four successive victories to open a season since 1993 when they finished preliminary finalists.
While their season-opening win over the Panthers was scratchy, they blew away the Dragons 30-4 in Round 2 and proved the scale of that win was no fluke when they took down the in-form Warriors 32-18 in Auckland last Sunday.
Meanwhile the Newcastle ship may not exactly be listing but plenty of their fans will be feeling green around the gills given their rough start. They accounted for the Sharks in Round 2 in only mediocre fashion before looking considerably out of their depth against the Broncos at home last Friday.
Coach Wayne Bennett has tinkered with his playmakers, welcoming Tyrone Roberts to the No.6 jersey and relegating last week’s makeshift pivot Matt Hilder to the bench. Junior Sa’u returns at centre for the injured Wes Naiqama, while Zane Tetevano replaces Marvin Filipo on the interchange.
Some interesting stats heading into this clash: Wayne Bennett has been the winning coach in nine of his past 11 games against the Bulldogs; Newcastle are on the verge of their 200th club victory; and only twice this century have the Bulldogs lost the week after playing in Auckland.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Jarrod Mullen holds the key for Newcastle. The halfback has booted 1425 metres from 43 kicks to date, the second best numbers behind the Storm’s Cooper Cronk. (Overall the Knights’ 629 metres a game is the third-most territory from kicks.) If Mullen can get the ball to land on a string and his team-mates can lift their chasing efforts (they’re ranked fifth with 55 ‘good chases’) they can pressure the home side.
But Mullen needs to take control of the playmaking – he hasn’t provided a line-break assist or try assist so far. Newcastle need his creativity or they’ll flat-line in attack.
Danger Sign: Look for the Knights to try to get fast play-the-balls all night and struggle on the ground when tackled – the Bulldogs’ success has come at a price, with the side conceding the most penalties to date (22). Piggy-backs downfield will be welcomed.
Watch Out Knights: Newcastle need to muscle up in defence close to their try line – through three games they’ve conceded four of their seven tries from inside 10 metres. More, the Bulldogs will fancy their chances of breaching their defence with a select pass given the Knights have given up four tries to passes.
If the Bulldogs start making breaks early the Knights will find it hard to stop the scoreboard ticking over. A whopping 10 of their 15 tries to date have come from line-breaks! Players doing the damage include Ben Barba and Josh Morris (four each and the equal most in the comp) and Johnathan Wright and Josh Reynolds (two apiece).
Danger Sign: If the Bulldogs make easy metres from the outset it will be a long afternoon for the visitors who are struggling with their defensive structures. The Knights are wallowing near the bottom of the defensive stats categories, conceding the most offloads (16) and most territory per game (1566 metres) as well as conceding the third-most line-breaks (5.7) and fourth-most missed tackles (35). They need to show a determination in defence from the outset or the Bulldogs will settle into their groove.
Ben Barba v Darius Boyd: Expect one of these talented fullbacks to figure in best-on-ground calculations. Excitement machine Barba has picked up where he left off in 2011 and his 196 metres and eight tackle busts left the Warriors licking their wounds last week. Meanwhile Boyd will be keen to leave his stamp after a quiet start at the back for the Knights.
Expect him to open his try assist and line-break assist accounts for 2012, while he’ll look to add triple figures in metres to boost his modest average of 87 to date. Boyd has the ability to lift his side with fierce, body-on-the-line kick-return runs – now’s the time for him to dish some of that out.
Where It Will Be Won: Handling the Bulldogs’ outside backs. Last week the Bulldogs made 10 line-breaks against the Warriors, who offered a spaced defence that allowed the ’Dogs’ speedsters plenty of holes. The Knights need to compress their defence and force the ’Dogs around them, then ensure they have sufficient troops in numbers and in cover to defuse their raids.
The History: Played 35; Bulldogs 18, Knights 16, drawn 1. The Knights have won five of the past eight encounters but the Bulldogs were triumphant the last time they met (see below). The Bulldogs boast a 7-4 record at ANZ Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: The Bulldogs trailed the Knights 22-6 at halftime in their Round 25 clash at ANZ Stadium last year before piling on 26 unanswered points to notch a stunning 32-22 comeback victory. The ’Dogs were woeful in the first 40, completing just five of 13 sets and gifting the Knights a whopping 70 per cent of possession. But then the Knights shut up shop and started dropping off tackles – missing 45 in the second stanza alone. Five rapid-fire tries from the 45th minute, including a double to Ben Barba, sealed the deal for the blue-and-whites who were best served by centres Jamal Idris and Josh Morris (139 metres), as well as prop Aiden Tolman (110 metres, 36 tackles). Newcastle halfback Jarrod Mullen set up both his side’s tries.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Chris Ward.
The Way We See It: On paper this looks a mismatch – especially given the venue. Expect a more committed Knights side in defence this week but with their injuries and personnel changes it’s a tough road ahead. Bulldogs by eight points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.