Knights v Titans preview

Newcastle Knights v Gold Coast Titans
Hunter Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm

Don’t let this match fly under your radar this week. Sure, it won’t get as many bums on seats as Origin I or attract as many viewers as Melbourne-Brisbane, but this clash is vitally important for both Newcastle and the Gold Coast and could be another spectacular encounter.

Season 2012 has been one of inconsistency and, it must be said, poor form thus far for both the Knights and the Titans. So far neither side has managed to record back-to-back victories – a worrying trend for coaches Wayne Bennett and John Cartwright.

The Knights enter this clash in 10th place with 10 points from four wins and a bye. So far they’ve defeated the Panthers in Round 8, the Eels in Round 6, the Bulldogs in Round 4 and the Sharks in Round 2. After 11 weeks, no doubt supercoach Bennett will be asking for more from his troops. Bennett’s included Danny Buderus in his line-up for this clash, with the former NSW and Australian hooker almost fully recovered from his troublesome Achilles injury. Buderus’s return shifts Matt Hilder to the bench. Chris Adams and Evarn Tuimavave have been relegated to the NSW Cup, with back-rower Joel Edwards added to the first-grade bench. The side, however, is subject to change – Newcastle have Aku Uate and Darius Boyd playing in Origin I.

The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t enjoyed much in the first half of 2012 either. They sit in 14th position following just three wins and a bye. This season the Gold Coast have beaten the Bulldogs in their last start in Round 10, as well as upset Manly in Round 7 at Brookvale and the Cowboys in Townsville in Round 1. Coach Cartwright has understandably kept the core group of players that defeated the Bulldogs, but there is an injury concern to key playmaker Scott Prince. The Titans’ halfback injured his ankle in a ballwork session at training recently, with the strain likely to keep him out of action for a week. Ben Ridge and Matt White have been added to the side that beat Canterbury and have been named on an extended bench. Their team is also subject to change after Origin, with Greg Bird, Nate Myles and Ashley Harrison all part of the state-versus-state clash.

Watch Out Knights: Possibly, just possibly, the Titans are warming into season 2012. After a 1-5 start, things have started to look brighter on the Gold Coast since Round 7, with unlikely away wins against the Sea Eagles and Bulldogs, as well as a controversial one-point loss to the Tigers, a sign they do have the strikepower to mix it with the NRL’s best sides. Can they break the drought and record their first back-to-back win for the season? They’ll certainly enter this clash as underdogs but, as history shows, that’s just the way the Titans like it.

Danger Sign: The Titans, it seems, are beginning to understand the right balance between ball control and opportunistic attacking plays. Earlier this season, the Titans looked either flat or boring. In Rounds 2, 3 and 4, the Titans just couldn’t crack the point-scoring code. Sometimes they protected the ball and treated it with respect… but failed to create any attacking opportunities. In Rounds 2 and 3, Gold Coast completed 71 and 73 per cent of their sets, but created a total of just three line-breaks. Against the Warriors in Round 4, they just couldn’t hold on to the ball, completing just 58 per cent of their sets. The past few rounds, though, the Titans look more disciplined and dynamic – a combination that has them winning the field-position arm-wrestle while at the same time creating more point-scoring opportunities. John Cartwright would be much happier with the recent figures – 73 per cent completion rate and five line-breaks against the ’Dogs, and 73 per cent and six line-breaks against the Sea Eagles.

Watch Out Titans: Is there a more threatening and potentially more damaging outside backs line-up than the Knights’ numbers 1-5? Each is a handful in his own right, and collectively they’re as hard to stop as any backline in the comp. The names Boyd, McManus, Sa’u, Tahu and Uate certainly instill fear in opponents – they just have to click as a unit before Knights fans can get too excited. With 127 tackle-breaks between them already this season, though, the hardest-running backline in the NRL is already making inroads. They just haven’t fully capitalised yet. Titans beware.

Danger Sign: The Gold Coast concede the sixth-highest number of metres per match (1292.9) – it doesn’t take a great deal of effort for opponents to march downfield from their own end, set up attacking plays and assert pressure and dominance over the Titans. The even more worrying sign for the Titans is the fact three of the pack workhorses and biggest stars will be in some doubt for this match after Origin. There’s a good chance the Titans can control the Knights’ march downfield if they all work together, communicate effectively and limit the Knights’ playmakers time in attack. But without Origin stars Greg Bird, Nate Myles and Ashley Harrison? It’s highly unlikely. Fingers crossed, Titans fans.

Tyrone Roberts v Jordan Rankin: Roberts and Rankin are inexperienced halfbacks with big shoes to fill as stand-in No.7s. Knight Roberts had a promising start to his career last season, finishing the year with selection in the Junior Kangaroos, but undoubtedly would not have been expecting an opportunity to don the No.7 so early in the season. Kurt Gidley’s injury has given him that opportunity. Injury has also given Rankin the opportunity to wear the Titans’ No.7 jersey, with Prince on the sidelines. Roberts has played just 11 top-grade games while Rankin’s played 15 – how they deal with being their team’s go-to men for one of the first times in their careers will have a significant influence on the outcome of this match.

Where It Will Be Won: The biggest problem both teams have experienced this season is scoring points – and it’s pretty difficult to win games without scoring! The Knights average 15.4 points and 2.6 tries per game, compared to the Titans 14.5 points and 2.4 tries. It certainly doesn’t make good reading for fans who like free-flowing, attacking and high-scoring games of football… but with the backline threats both teams possess, you get a feeling it’s a matter of when, not if, something will click. Those full and half-chances each team receives will have a huge bearing on this match. Who’s going to take the opportunities?

The History: Played 8: Knights 5, Titans 3. The ledger is even more one-sided in Newcastle, with the Knights winning three of four matches at Hunter Stadium. Last start they even racked up 50 points!

The Last Time They Met: Round 21 in 2011 was not a good week for Titans fans – being on the receiving end of a 50-point shellacking never is! In the Knights-Titans clash at the stadium formerly known as Ausgrid in Newcastle, the home side walked to a 16-12 halftime lead before they bolted after the break.

For the home side, veteran centre Adam MacDougall was in top form, threatening whenever he saw open spaces, scoring one try and setting up a couple of others. His outside man Uate scored three tries, while left-side winger James McManus scored two four-pointers.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne and Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood and Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: This clash is a vital one for both sides’ finals hopes in 2012 – a win will inject much-needed momentum but a loss could well put them on a slippery slope well out of playoff contention. Expect both teams to be ready for the occasion. The Knights, as statistics show, will be warm favourites… and for good reason. The Titans, though, won’t be pushovers, especially if all of their Origin stars back up after Wednesday night. The home side should be too strong in this match, especially with inspirational hooker Buderus back in action. Knights by four points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats