Will the Roosters’ Jekyll and Hyde season continue? Have the Knights finally arrived as a premiership force? Can the home side recover from their stunning last-minute loss to the Dragons on Anzac Day? These are just some of the questions to be answered when Sydney Roosters host Newcastle at Allianz Stadium this Sunday.
With both sides sitting on eight competition points after a topsy-turvy start to 2012, now is the time for one of them to make their upwards move as they head into the heart of the season. But just what to make of their respective progress is easier said than done.
The Roosters began the year strongly with some grinding displays and a never-say-die attitude helping them to a 4-2 start over the opening six rounds; however, they were stopped in their tracks in Round 7 when thrashed 50-12 by North Queensland and left devastated a week-and-a-half later when they threw away an eight-point lead with five minutes remaining to fall 26-24 to St George Illawarra.
More worrying for coach Brian Smith, however, has been the huge swings of form from week to week. Despite scoring grinding wins against Canberra and the Gold Coast and turning on the style to down the Warriors, they have twice conceded more than 40 points in a game and boast the third-worst defence in the Telstra Premiership, ahead of only Parramatta and the Warriors.
The Knights’ progress under new coach Wayne Bennett has been even more topsy-turvy, with a perfectly balanced LWLWLWLW record so far surely enough to have him tearing out what little hair he has remaining.
His solace comes in the knowledge that Newcastle has been in the contest in all four of their losses, including two extremely tight contests against his former club St George Illawarra.
And there were encouraging signs in Monday night’s 34-14 win over Penrith, with the side producing their most impressive attacking display of the season and new arrival Willie Mason making an immediate impact in his debut for the club. Mason may divide opinion but there is no doubt he can add an X-factor to the Knights’ forward pack under the tutelage of Bennett.
Back-rower Boyd Cordner returns for the Roosters on a five-man bench while Newcastle has named hooker Danny Buderus despite the veteran being forced from the field with an Achilles injury on Monday night. Tyrone Roberts comes into the side at halfback in place of captain Kurt Gidley who is expected to miss the rest of the season with his shoulder injury.
Roosters fullback Anthony Minichiello will be hoping his impressive record against the Knights continues, having won 11 from 18 games and eight from 10 at Allianz Stadium. He also needs just one try to equal Billy Slater’s record for most tries against Newcastle (14).
Ironically, one of his opponents this Sunday, Timana Tahu, hasn’t tasted success at Allianz since 2001 (disregarding his time in rugby union). It will also be an interesting night out for Willie Mason against his former club, with seven of his team-mates from his last appearance for the Roosters in 2009 set to line up against him!
Watch Out Roosters: Newcastle’s wing duo of James McManus and Akuila Uate have been both busy and highly effective for the Knights this season – topping the club’s metres gained and try-scoring list in 2012. McManus and Uate have averaged 135.4 and 138.3 metres respectively, have scored five tries apiece and made six line-breaks apiece. They will again pose a major threat to the Roosters this weekend.
Danger Sign: The Roosters have struggled with the boot in 2012, having kicked for fewer metres than any other side. After eight rounds, the boys from Bondi have kicked for just 3753 metres at 469 per game, with Mitchell Pearce kicking 71 times for a gain of 2320 metres. By comparison the NRL’s top kicking side, Manly, have averaged 703 metres with Daly Cherry-Evans kicking for 3236 metres and Kieran Foran 1016. The Roosters are yet to kick a 40/20 this season.
Watch Out Knights: Roosters fullback Anthony Minichiello has been in fine form this season with his support play back to its best and running game causing headaches for opposition defences. Minichiello has averaged 160 metres per game in 2012 – the third most in the Telstra Premiership – produced 28 tackle-breaks, scored four tries and added two line-breaks and three line-break assists. Notably, he has scored a try in each of his past seven games against the Knights.
Danger Sign: The Roosters will be well-served heading wide at every opportunity because Newcastle’s defensive weakness is certainly on the edges. While the Knights have conceded just one try through the middle in 2012, they have had 10 tries scored on their left edge and nine on their right.
Anthony Minichiello v Darius Boyd: The star fullbacks will have a huge say in the result on Sunday. Notably, it is Minichiello who has excelled this season – winding the clock back to his heyday of the mid-2000s with his bumping runs and heavy involvement. Boyd, by comparison, has struggled to recapture the brilliant form he displayed at the Dragons over the past three seasons but he has been solid and there is no doubt he is capable of transforming this Newcastle outfit.
Where It Will Be Won: The forward battle will be immense and it is likely that if one pack can get on top of the other they will take home the two competition points. It looms as quite the heavyweight battle with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Martin Kennedy, Lama Tasi and Mose Masoe up against Kade Snowden, Evarn Tuimavave and of course a fired-up Willie Mason.
The History: Played 41; Roosters 21, Knights 18, drawn 2. It has traditionally been tough to split these two clubs and that has been no different in recent years with neither side managing to string consecutive wins together since 2007. The Roosters lead 10-6 in clashes at Allianz Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: An injury-depleted Newcastle proved too hungry for the visiting Roosters to score an 18-10 win at Hunter Stadium in Round 16 last year. With halves Jarrod Mullen and Kurt Gidley both ruled out before kick-off through injury, the Knights showed greater urgency to score three tries to two and put a huge dent in the Roosters’ finals hopes.
The Roosters were first to score after 10 minutes when Justin Carney pushed off Akuila Uate to score out wide, but their good work was quickly undone as Jason Ryles dropped the ball from the kick-off.
The Knights responded by sending the ball out to Junior Sau who crashed over for a 6-4 lead. That lead was extended in the 30th minute through a remarkable try to Peter Mata’utia who picked up a loose pass on the left, drifted infield and then raced through the middle to score untouched.
Newcastle all but sealed victory midway through the second half when Uate crossed in the right corner – Wes Naiqama’s sideline conversion pushing the score out to 18-4.
The Roosters scored a late consolation through Anthony Minichiello whose 105th career try broke the club record.
Stand-in Knights captain Naiqama impressed with 155 metres and three goals from three attempts, while Jake Friend made 52 tackles for the visitors.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Chris Ward.
The Way We See It: If the Newcastle that belted Penrith last week turns up again they will be extremely hard to beat, but they don’t have a great record at Allianz and injuries could play a part following the potentially season-ending shoulder injury to Kurt Gidley. Likewise, the Roosters have been all over the place this season but on their day can be difficult to break down. We favour the home side in a very tight contest. Roosters by two points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats