Knights v Raiders preview

Newcastle Knights v Canberra Raiders
Hunter Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

As inconceivable as it may sound, a side that leaked 50 points last week – the equal most by any team in 2012 – will head into this clash red-hot favourites on Saturday night.

In a fateful piece of scheduling the 13th-placed Knights, savaged 50-24 by the Broncos last Sunday, go head to head with the 15th-placed Raiders, themselves on the receiving end of a 40-nil hiding from the Wests Tigers.

Newcastle have had a tough time of things lately, losing their past four games in a row by an average margin of 18.5 points. The return to Hunter Stadium will help their cause, as will an out-of-sorts opponent – although they’ll seriously miss the services of key attacking stars Akuila Uate and Darius Boyd to Origin duty.

A win is crucial for the home side if they wish to remain in the hunt for a semi-finals spot, given they face tough assignments against the Wests Tigers, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles over the next month.

Meanwhile, such was the emphatic nature of the Tigers’ win last Saturday Raiders coach David Furner never really got to run the rule over his experiment of handing Josh Dugan the No.6 jersey. In a performance better forgotten than scrutinised, the normally dominant Dugan made just six runs for a total of 28 metres plus a bunch of errors. All eyes will be on him this game.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Raiders this week – they head into battle minus captain David Shillington who is in camp with the Maroons, and they have won at Hunter Stadium just once since 1996! To make matters worse, memories of their 32-point thumping by the Knights last season will still be vivid in their minds. Still, they’ll be heartened by the news a Wayne Bennett-coached side hasn’t defeated the Raiders since 2008…

In Newcastle team changes, Peter Mata’utia makes his season debut at fullback for Darius Boyd, with last week’s centres Junior Sa’u and Wes Naiqama making way for Dane Gagai (on debut after his release from the Broncos) and Timana Tahu (back from injury); Kevin Naiqama fills in for Uate on the wing. Richie Fa’aoso is gone from their bench, with Zeb Taia recalled.

Meanwhile Raiders coach David Furner has named Dane Tilse to start at prop for Shillington, with Bronson Harrison returning to their interchange bench which numbers seven players at this stage.

Watch Out Knights: One of the biggest concerns for Wayne Bennett is the Knights’ ongoing struggles with territory – both making it and conceding it. Newcastle make the second-fewest metres each match (just 1270) while conceding the most metres (1431); this means that on average they concede 161 metres to their opponents every week. If the Raiders forwards can get on a roll and their outside backs including Blake Ferguson (average 122 metres) and Reece Robinson (132 metres) can make inroads, the Knights may find it too tough to counter-attack without Uate and Boyd in their number.

Also, the Knights need to be switched on about chip kicks for chasers like Josh Dugan in the front line – only Melbourne use the chip kick more than the Raiders (13 times to date).

Danger Sign: If Dugan and Ferguson start to punch holes up the guts you can guarantee Wayne Bennett will feel a migraine coming on – Newcastle have conceded the most line-breaks through centre-field (33 to date).

Watch Out Raiders: Oppositions continue to expose the Raiders’ week left-edge defence which is mimicking a well-oiled turnstile at the midpoint of 2012. Canberra have leaked an unacceptable 35 tries on their left side – including a whopping six to the Tigers last week. There simply isn’t a great deal of communication or understanding among Raiders players on that edge and Dane Gagai and Kevin Naiqama will no doubt again test the nerve of Jarrod Croker, Reece Robinson and Edrick Lee.

Jarrod Mullen will revert to a variety of kicks in an effort to post points – the Raiders have conceded 13 tries off the boot to date. The Knights scored two tries from kicks when they last met, with pinpoint cross-field placement between the centres and wingers reaping dividends. Expect Mullen to do the same again.

Prop Kade Snowden needs to be swamped in numbers close to the Raiders goal-line – Canberra have yielded four tries to offloads from close range (equal most in 2012) and Snowden is showing good skill in this department with 14 offloads and two try assists so far. (Adam Cuthbertson is another with a deadly belated offload; he has 12 so far too.)

Danger Sign: Any time Mullen gets into dummy-half, especially on the left edge of the field. Chances are he will ignite a short-side raid – Newcastle are averaging almost seven shifts down the short left edge every game.

Jarrod Mullen v Josh Dugan: Two vastly different styles of playmaker who will have a huge bearing on their team’s fortunes. Mullen is more your general-type five-eighth who will size up the opposition weakness before shooting the ball to his outside backs, run himself or pick up a running forward. He will fancy his chances running to the line on the right side of the field given the Raiders’ defensive woes there. He has scored five tries and made 27 tackle-breaks so far. Significantly, Mullen has conjured eight try assists in his 10 career games against Canberra – his second best return against any opponent – and is undefeated against the Green Machine in five games at Hunter Stadium. Up the other end of the park Josh Dugan has the potential to be a game-breaker taking the ball at first or second receiver. At seven games at fullback he’s averaged 134 metres with 36 tackle-breaks and 10 offloads – there’s no telling the damage he can wreak if he is allowed to wind up close to the ruck.

Where It Will Be Won: Taking every chance that is presented. This is likely to be a high-scoring affair, given both sides have had their troubles containing opposition attacking raids to date. The outcome won’t rest with defence; rather, the side that can make the most of the possession that comes their way and outpoint their opponent on the night will come away with the competition points.  

The History: Played 35; Raiders 19, Knights 15, drawn 1. Newcastle have won five of the past eight games between the sides, including the past two, and boast a decisive 12-4 advantage at Hunter Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Knights thrashed the Raiders 40-8 at Hunter Stadium in Round 22 last year.

Canberra fans’ joy at Josh McCrone’s try to open the scoring in the fifth minute was short-lived and misplaced as the home side responded with seven unanswered tries to propel to a 40-4 scoreline with still 20 minutes remaining.

Newcastle led 22-4 at halftime, with veteran Adam MacDougall in the thick of the action bagging a double and setting up Akuila Uate. Matt Hilder also scored a try, exposing some flimsy Raiders defence from 20 metres out.

The Knights continued their assault early in the second half with James McManus fielding a clever Kurt Gidley cross-field kick to touch down in the left corner. Chris Houston charged over at second receiver for a 32-4 lead after 52 minutes before Uate grabbed his second try of the afternoon, charging between defenders Jarrod Croker and Daniel Vidot to grab a Jarrod Mullen cross-field kick for a 38-4 lead with 53 minutes elapsed.

Raiders centre Joel Thompson strolled through some paper-thin defence for a consolation try in the 71st minute before a Gidley penalty goal rounded out the scoring.

Adam MacDougall was easily the best player on the ground, making 163 metres with 10 tackle-breaks and two line-breaks, while Raiders lock Shaun Fensom did his best to repel the Knights with 51 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Jason Walsh; Video Referee – Paul Mellor.

The Way We See It: The stats show it’s a toss of the coin regarding a Newcastle bounce-back this week – they have a 6-6 record the week after conceding 50 points to an opposition. We figure that will be 7-6 come 9.15pm Saturday… but only just. Knights by two points.    

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats