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Newcastle Knights v Penrith Panthers
Hunter Stadium
Monday 7pm

The countdown is on to Willie Mason’s return to the NRL, with the Hunter region abuzz following his selection on the bench for this crucial clash with the struggling Panthers. Coupled with Kurt Gidley’s return from injury, it’s a huge boost to the side and coach Wayne Bennett will have stressed total focus for this game, with a victory certain to lift them into the top eight.

The Knights have spluttered through the first quarter of the season, recording a loss-win sequence through their first seven games to sit in ninth position on the ladder. Their most recent outing saw them fall 12-4 to the Dragons. They’ve hardly set the premiership on fire and their 30.4 missed tackles per game – the seventh most in the NRL – is most unlike a Bennett-coached side.

Points are a huge issue too – they average just 14.6 a game. Their wingers Akuila Uate and James McManus account for nine of their 17 tries to date. Perhaps their most damning stat though is the fact boom fullback Darius Boyd is yet to score for his new club.

You can bet Bennett will not appreciate the path they are on – only twice in 30 years has he experienced a losing record after eight rounds (in 1999 and 2007).

That said, they will welcome the chance to throw off the shackles this week against an opponent who have conceded 60 points in their past two games – and scored none themselves.

Penrith have been simply woeful of late, succumbing to back-to-back whitewashes at the hands of the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers. The demoralising defeats have seen them plummet to 14th on the ladder and although they travel up the F3 this Monday the journey will hardly hold any qualms, given they have lost all four games they’ve played at their Centrebet Stadium base. Clearly, things can only get better.

In Newcastle team changes, Wes Naiqama returns at centre for Junior Sa’u while Gidley will play his fifth game of the season after being named in the No.7. Adam Cuthbertson makes way for Mason on their bench.

Meanwhile in Panthers changes, Michael Jennings’ return sees Ivan Cleary shift Brad Tighe to the wing. Danny Galea will start in the second row, with Clint Newton benched. Ryan Simpkins is the new face on their interchange.

Watch Out Knights: Forget the corners and the goalposts – Newcastle need to muscle up in defence either side of the ‘sticks’ or the Panthers will make them pay. Newcastle have conceded 14 tries halfway to the sideline on either side of the field (seven left and seven right) – and they’ve conceded just three others in total! The danger is exacerbated by the fact 11 of Penrith’s 19 tries have been scored 10 to 15 metres either side of the goalposts.  

Boy has Clint Newton got a point to prove! The unwanted former Novocastrian has spent 1816 nights dreaming of revenge and now he gets his chance to show how wrong the former hierarchy was to let him go. Newton made 100 appearances and tallied 1000 runs for Newcastle over seven seasons. Snapped up by Penrith he’s been the vital cog in their second-phase play, leading the team for offloads (nine). Newcastle can expect his energy levels to be at an all-time high.

Michael Jennings will trouble the Newcastle right-side defence – Origin-bound Jennings has scored five tries in six games and Penrith have crossed for 13 tries on the left side, compared to just three on the right.

Danger Sign: If halfback Luke Walsh runs the ball even a couple of times in the opening 20 minutes you’ll know the Panthers are switched on. To date the No.7 has been a little hesitant, running just four times a game. He’s managed just two try assists but if he runs more and varies his play the points could start to flow for the visitors. Walsh will target the flanks with kicks too – the Knights are the fourth-worst side at defusing cross-field bombs (just 38 per cent success).

Watch Out Panthers: He may not be match-fit but expectation and pride will take Willie Mason a long way. Why has Wayne Bennett invested in the 32-year-old? Well, in his heyday he was one of the most punishing back-rowers in rugby league. In his last season with Canterbury in 2007 ‘Big Willie’ averaged 17 hit-ups and 142 metres in 56 minutes on the park. Even when he last graced a footy field, for the Cowboys in 2010, Mason averaged 13 hit-ups and 106 metres in 49 minutes. Given the Knights have just two forwards in their squad who are busting out triple figures in metres each week there’s no reason Mason won’t have an immediate impact. Expect him to thrive on the edges.

The Panthers will have their work cut out covering not just the man in possession but also trailing players – Newcastle have registered the fourth-most support plays so far (249).

Darius Boyd suits up for his 150th NRL game – to date he’s made 667 tackle-breaks, 67 line-breaks, 46 try assists and scored 44 tries. He’s yet to cross the stripe for the Knights but that will change sooner rather than later.

Danger Sign: If Danny Buderus, Jarrod Mullen and Kurt Gidley spend a lot of time probing the centre of the ruck it’s because they’ll sense weakness in the Panthers up the guts. No side has conceded more tries around their goalposts than Penrith (10). Watch for plenty of inside balls to runners like Neville Costigan when they’re inside the Panthers’ 10-metre zone.

Kade Snowden v Sam McKendry: Two traditional ‘grinders’ who will strive to give their sides a solid platform. Snowden hasn’t been afforded many accolades to date but he’s matching it with the best: he’s making a dour 119 metres and 27 tackles each week and he ranks second for offloads among props (nine) and third for tackle-breaks (13). Plus he boasts a bit of footwork and skill: he’s one of only two props with a try assist to his name. Meanwhile Kiwi rep McKendry is a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of front-rower. He averages 13 runs and 107 metres, adding 23 tackles each week. His defence in particular is a strong-point – he’s super dependable, being ineffective just 0.8 tackles a game.

Where It Will Be Won: Field position. The Knights have really struggled to spend a lot of time in opposition territory while the Panthers have been on the back foot territorially over the past two games. The Knights average the third-worst combined metres differential, surrendering 137 metres each week after their defensive effort is subtracted from their go-forward. This is despite Jarrod Mullen’s kicking game (52 long kicks, most by any player, plus NRL-high two 40/20s) giving them good thrust downfield. Meanwhile the Panthers are the fourth best in the comp with +75 metres territorial differential each week – but they’ve been dreadful recently. Against the Sea Eagles in Round 6 they slumped to a -144 metres return and fared even worse against the Tigers last game, recording a deficit of  -177 metres.  

The History: Played 35; Knights 19, Panthers 13, drawn 3. The Knights have won five of the past eight clashes and won both games last year. Hunter Stadium would appear to be no great advantage, with Penrith winning exactly half of the 16 games played there – then again, the Knights have rallied to win eight of the past 12 encounters between the sides at their HQ.

The Last Time They Met: The Knights defeated the Panthers 16-12 at Hunter Stadium in Round 15 last year.

Newcastle seized the lead with 17 minutes gone when Neville Costigan charged onto an inside ball from NRL debutant Ryan Stig, with a conversion and subsequent penalty goal sending the home team to the sheds with an 8-nil lead.

The Panthers roared back into contention shortly after the break when Masada Iosefa sprinted onto a flat ball from halfback Luke Walsh to cross next to the goalposts. An Akuila Uate try off a lovely Keith Lulia flick pass gave the Knights breathing space in the 65th minute before Iosefa crossed for his second of the night to leave the hometown faithful nervous with a 14-12 scoreline with seven minutes remaining. However, a Kurt Gidley penalty goal on the siren secured the Novocastrians the win.

It was a stirring second half by the Panthers, who outpointed their rivals despite completing just nine of 18 sets with the ball in hand. But it was their 23 missed tackles in the first 40 that did the damage.

Meanwhile the Knights were solid if unspectacular. They totalled 36 missed tackles and made 15 errors but their attack saw them through, with six line-breaks to Penrith’s three.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Chris Butler; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: This one could go either way – both sides miss exactly 30.4 tackles a game so far (although the Panthers had better figures until their past two blowout losses). But given the Willie Mason factor, Kurt Gidley’s return and a healthy and vocal crowd at Hunter Stadium it’s tough to go past the home side. Newcastle by six points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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