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Newcastle Knights v Wests Tigers
Hunter Stadium
Monday 7pm

You’d think that players put on notice and others being told to look elsewhere would hardly be conducive to a morale-boosting environment – but that’s precisely the effect coach Wayne Bennett is angling for as the lacklustre Knights look to catch fire through the back half of the season.

These are not just season-defining weeks for the Novocastrians, but club-defining as well. How they negotiate their final 11 games of 2012, how the players respond to the team’s plight and the coaching staff and management’s urgings, could have significant bearing on how quickly the club can rebound as a serious premiership force.

The side is way off the pace in 13th position on the NRL ladder – but mathematically they are still a chance of making the semi-finals should they win at least nine of their remaining games. However, they need quantum improvement: the only premiership points they’ve banked since April 30 have come from two byes, including one last week, with five consecutive losses since their 34-14 win over the Panthers in Round 8. Most recently they stumbled to a 32-16 los to the similarly under-the-pump Raiders at home in Round 14.   

On Monday night they get a chance to make a statement in their backyard against a Wests Tigers side whose soaring form was understandably jolted last week by the overwhelming grief that accompanied the death of captain Robbie Farah’s mother Sonia.   

Prior to their 42-28 loss to the Roosters at Leichhardt the Tigers had clawed their way to seven straight wins.

The Knights know they need to make the most of their State of Origin representatives Darius Boyd and Akuila Uate before they head to the Maroons and Blues camps respectively early next week. Boyd is back in the fold for this game, replacing Peter Mata’utia who wore the No.1 against the Raiders, with Uate bumping Kevin Naiqama off the wing. Their only other change sees Zane Tetevano join the bench to form a five-man interchange.

For the Tigers, Farah returns in place of Masada Iosefa at hooker; Iosefa hits the interchange, with Ray Cashmere a new face on their extended bench.

Watch Out Knights: The Knights simply have to add some variety to their attack or their scoring struggles will continue. Newcastle score the second-fewest points each week (16) – but it’s their difficulties in getting a result from attacking kicks that’s really killing them. Incredibly the Knights have tallied a league-low three tries from kicks so far. It’s a massive turnaround from 2011 when they crossed for 18. Meanwhile the Tigers have scored 15 tries off the boot – more than one per game.

Robbie Farah will put on a brave face as he attempts to record his 100th career victory. Chris Chris Heighington is set for the milestone too – the pair will become the first Tigers to hit the mark. Farah was his team’s hero the last time the sides met, making two try assists and booting the winning field-goal, while Heighington has won five of eight games against the Knights since 2004, including four at Hunter Stadium. He was dominant last time they met, making 23 hit-ups and 30 tackles.

Danger Sign: If the Tigers’ halves start to run. The last time they met, now-five-eighth Blake Ayshford powered to a career game-high 13 tackle busts, plus two line-breaks and 180 metres. Now-No.7 Benji Marshall made 12 tackle busts and 130 metres. If they are given room to move the Knights could be powerless to stop the assault – especially given Newcastle are surrendering the most territory each week (1427 metres).

Watch Out Wests Tigers: We can’t see Ricky Stuart tinkering with a winning side for Origin III but there have been calls for Akuila Uate’s dumping given his shaky moments under the high ball and his less-than-penetrating attack of late. With that in mind we expect Uate to focus on the powerful running game that put him on the representative map in the first place. Uate was impressive the last time these sides met, running 17 times for 189 metres with seven tackle-breaks. If Wayne Bennett has jogged his memory with a highlights package of the strong, knife-like straight runs at defences that made him a star, he can wreak havoc here.     

Willie Mason has garnered a largely favourable response since his return to the NRL but given all the talk about Newcastle’s future roster he’ll be intent on keeping the media wolves at bay with a rousing effort up front. Mason is averaging 10.5 runs for 96 metres and 12 tackles in 38 minutes of game time.

Danger Sign: Darius Boyd is going to score a try in the NRL sooner or later in 2012 – and when he does it could open the floodgates. The No.1 hasn’t crossed in the Telstra Premiership since the 78th minute of the Dragons’ semi-final loss to the Broncos last year. Since then he’s gone 969 minutes without a high-five from a Knights team-mate.   

Danny Buderus v Robbie Farah: Farah may be entrenched in the NSW side after his 63-tackle effort in Origin II but it was only a half-dozen or so weeks back that veteran Buderus was being hailed as the logical choice of hooker for the Blues. Which makes no sense, given his stats in 2012: zero try assists, one line-break and zero line-break assists. Before heading to the UK at the end of 2008 Buderus played 15 games for six try assists, seven line-breaks and six line-break assists. You can bet he’ll be using Farah as motivation this week. The Tigers skipper averages the second-most runs (10.4) and aside from his defensive input (33 tackles a game) he has contributed four line-break assists and two line-breaks in his nine games. His 74 dummy-half dashes are the second most by a hooker.  

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. The Tigers weren’t in any frame of mind to play football last week and it showed. They missed 58 tackles, the second most by a side so far. The job coach Tim Sheens faces is to acknowledge the special circumstances they find themselves in but still get them to focus on the park. Meanwhile how the Knights respond to their internal dramas will determine their fate not just here but for the remainder of the season.

The History: Played 16; Wests Tigers 9, Knights 7. The Tigers have been dominant of late, winning the past four straight and six of the past eight. However, the ledger at Hunter Stadium stands at four games apiece.  

The Last Time They Met: The Tigers scraped home 17-16 in a Monday night, golden-point thriller in front of a near-packed house at Leichhardt Oval in Round 13 last year.

Halfback Robert Lui drew first blood for the home team when he sliced through from close range off a Robbie Farah inside pass for a 6-nil lead after 19 minutes.

Newcastle hit back 10 minutes later when five-eighth Beau Henry stepped his way through some feeble Tigers’ defence 30 metres out, offloaded to centre Junior Sa’u who gave the final pass to Neville Costigan for a four-pointer which when converted levelled the scores.

The visitors silenced the 18,500-strong crowd five minutes before halftime after a stunning try to winger James McManus. The play commenced with Kurt Gidley grubber-kicking into the in-goal down the left edge, with Tigers winger Beau Ryan putting his body between the ball and the Newcastle chasers as he willed the Steeden over the dead-ball line. Junior Sa’u came from the clouds to bat the ball back just as it was about to bounce dead, with McManus on the spot for the grounding.

However, the sides drew level again when Tigers winger Mitch Brown crossed in the left corner off a Tim Simona flick pass on the stroke of halftime.

Newcastle captain Gidley wrested the lead for his side with a clever piece of play seven minutes after the break. He feigned to kick from first receiver 10 metres out, his split-second deception putting the Tigers’ goal-line defenders on the back foot, with a select pass to a charging Antonio Kaufusi reaping rewards.

The Tigers struggled to make further impression before Benji Marshall looped a long pass across the face of the goalposts, with Liam Fulton crashing over from close range to lock things up at 16-all in the 74th minute.

Robbie Farah broke the deadlock in the seventh minute of extra time with a field-goal from dummy-half 20 metres out, the Tigers’ fourth attempt at snatching victory with a one-pointer. Meanwhile the Knights were unsuccessful with five field-goal attempts.

The victory boiled down to a woeful Knights defensive effort in the second 40 minutes, when they missed a staggering 39 tackles.

Farah was the Tigers’ hero with two try assists and the match-winning field-goal, while Akuila Uate was a devastating force for the Knights with 189 metres and seven tackle-breaks.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.

The Way We See It: On paper the Tigers are ‘morals’. But as we’ve seen from the embattled Eels and Panthers in 2012, any team is capable of an upset if they turn up to play. Expect the Knights to provide much stiffer opposition this week – but the visitors to bounce back to the winner’s list. Wests Tigers by four points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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