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Warriors v Newcastle Knights
Mt Smart Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm (NZ time)

This promising Rivalry Round clash is as much a battle between two key individuals as it is a pair of sides struggling to remain valid in the 2012 premiership race, with excitement machines Manu Vatuvei and Akuila Uate champing at the bit to rekindle their intense one-on-one competition.

The power-running pair were each pivotal to their side’s performance when the Warriors triumphed the last time they met (see below) – and they will be among the go-to men again as both teams focus on a winning run that would guarantee a berth in the semi-finals.

The Warriors can count themselves a little unlucky to have fallen 10-8 to the Broncos last Friday night after dominating all the key statistics categories, including scoring two tries to one. The defeat – their fourth from their past seven matches – and the Wests Tigers’ gritty win over the Panthers sees those teams swap places on the ladder, with the Warriors now outside the finals zone in ninth position.  

Meanwhile the Knights continued their Jekyll-and-Hyde trend of late, putting the Sea Eagles to the sword with a blistering 32-6 win that showed everyone associated with the club, from the player base to the coaching staff, management and fans, that they are capable of playing the brand of football necessary to beat the best.

The victory, their third from their past four outings, elevated them two places on the NRL ladder to 12th and kept their semi-finals dream burning.

The top-eight equation entering this game? The Warriors must win a minimum four of their remaining seven games, while the Knights must win a minimum five of their seven.
The home side will be confident given their recent record against the Novocastrians – they’ve been defeated by them just once in their past eight meetings and have won the past five straight.

In a huge boost for the Warriors Konrad Hurrell is back this week after missing the game against the Broncos with a foot injury. He displaces Lewis Brown who reverts to the extended interchange, with one man to be cut before kick-off.

Meanwhile the Knights have lost winger James McManus to injury, with his place taken by Kevin Naiqama. On the plus side Neville Costigan, a late withdrawal last week, is fit to start at lock; his inclusion pushes Alex McKinnon to a bench that numbers five at this stage. 

It’s a milestone week for Adam Cuthbertson who plays his 100th NRL game off the interchange.

Watch Out Warriors: The Kiwis should not take halfback Tyrone Roberts lightly. Just turned 19, the Junior Kangaroos rep has impressed in his 11 games in the top grade this year and his sidestepping try from close range and cut-out pass for James MacManus to score last week showed he’s growing in confidence with every outing. 

Darius Boyd is too good a player to go a season without scoring a try – and one of his last came late in 2011 against the Warriors. He has the added incentive that should he score on Saturday night he’ll become the first Knights fullback in history to dot down at Mt Smart Stadium.

Although Boyd’s other attacking numbers are also down on previous years he remains the Knights’ go-to man with seven try assists and six line-break assists. He’s maintained his ability to bust a tackle, too – he is averaging three tackle-breaks a game and needs just two more to notch 700 in his career.

Danger Sign: The short kick could be a shock tactic that gains some results – the Warriors are the worst side in the NRL at handling short kicks, defusing them at a lowly 40 per cent. They have some burly outside backs who could struggle to turn around in time if the ball is directed behind them for Knights chasers in mid-field.

Watch Out Knights: Shaun ‘Magic’ Johnson is the man to fear. The halfback can be mesmerising with the ball in hand and his show-and-go and his ability to beat an opponent with a lightning-fast dummy is second to none. Johnson creates a try nearly every game (15 assists so far) and has scored in every second game he’s played (eight tries).

The Knights’ fringe dwellers need to hold firm in defence, particularly around the centres. Rookie Konrad Hurrell is in scintillating form, with 12 tries in as many games (including three against the Titans a fortnight ago) plus 11 line-breaks. He will ask plenty of questions of Timana Tahu (ineffective 17 per cent of the time). 

Meanwhile on the other edge Dane Gagai is sure to be funnelled plenty of traffic; while he is setting the world on fire with his attack he is proving suspect in defence, averaging almost four misses a game – including eight against Manly last week.

Danger Sign: If the Knights are unable to trouble the Warriors’ front line they may struggle to get enough good field position to make an impression. While both sides make roughly the same amount of territory each game, the Warriors yield the second-fewest average metres (1312), while the Knights leak territory like a sieve (1422 metres – the second most).     

Manu Vatuvei v Akuila Uate: Fans can expect plenty of thrills out wide when these powerful runners lock horns on the same side of the field. The pair have combined for a staggering 119 tackle-breaks and 20 tries so far, so it’s a given each will play a pivotal role. That was certainly the case the last time they met, with Vatuvei gaining a modest points decision with a yield of 106 metres, a try assist, a line-break, seven tackle-breaks and three offloads; meanwhile Uate made 121 metres with 11 tackle-breaks. Vatuvei is on the brink of history: he needs just two tries to become the club’s first player to register 100 career tries, plus his next line-break will be his 100th. (There’s a chance he’ll bring up both milestones on Saturday night with the same play!) Meanwhile Uate has displayed red-hot form since his Origin dumping – he destroyed the Sea Eagles last week with 13 tackle-breaks, two line-breaks and a try double. And he ranks second in the comp for line-breaks (16). Whichever player makes the biggest impact will gain his side the advantage.

Where It Will Be Won: Shutting down the opposition. Defence hasn’t been a priority for these sides in 2012, with the Warriors guilty of conceding the second-most missed tackles every game (34.7) and the Knights – surprisingly for a Wayne Bennett-coached team – ranked fourth worst with 33.5 misses a match. Newcastle missed 47 tackles last week but still overwhelmed the Sea Eagles. Meantime the Warriors missed just 31 to the Broncos’ 47 but couldn’t get the win. If the sides hold true to last week’s defensive efforts we’re pretty sure the Warriors will hold an edge.     

The History: Played 28; Knights 14, Warriors 13, drawn 1. The Warriors have an outstanding recent record against the Knights, winning seven of the past eight including the past five straight. However, the overall record in Auckland is shared seven games apiece, with one draw. 

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors put a dent in the Knights’ 2011 semi-finals campaign with a stirring 20-12 comeback victory at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 23 last year.

The Knights looked to be cruising when they raced to a 12-4 lead through the first 40 minutes courtesy of tries to winger Akuila Uate (23rd minute) and Adam MacDougall (36th minute). Meanwhile the Warriors’ sole point-scoring play came when Shaun Berrigan touched down in the 27th minute.

But the second half belonged to the Warriors, with 16 unanswered points sealing a drama-charged win that kept them in the hunt for the Telstra Premiership trophy. 

They left their run until late however, with three tries in the final quarter of the match – including Shaun Johnson’s in the 58th minute, Simon Mannering’s in the 63rd minute (which gave them the lead for the first time in the match) and finally Feleti Mateo’s match-winner three minutes from the fulltime siren.

While Johnson scored the try that kick-started their revival the Warriors owed plenty to big Manu Vatuvei who made a 40-metre burst in the lead-up before slipping Johnson a miracle offload to gift his halfback an unopposed 20-metre stroll to the try-line. 

Mannering scored minutes later after Akuila Uate failed to defuse a Johnson grubber kick into the in-goal, before Mateo delivered the knockout blow, the final cog in a smart break and passing interchange that was initiated by Aaron Heremaia and also involved five-eighth James Maloney.

The Warriors did extremely well to trail by just eight points at the break – they completed their sets at a woeful 61 per cent in the first stanza compared to the Knights’ 84 per cent.

However, the writing was on the wall given the first-half stats also showed that despite the possession drain they still managed to make five line-breaks to the Knights’ two.

Hooker Heremaia was a standout for the home team with a busy running game that yielded 98 metres, five tackle busts and two line-breaks, while Newcastle fullback Kurt Gidley made a game-high 15 runs for 142 metres.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence. 

The Way We See It: The Warriors have won 10 of their past 12 games at Mt Smart Stadium, not to mention 10 of their past 12 against Newcastle. They lost no admirers in Brisbane last week and although Newcastle displayed unprecedented dash last week it would take a brave pundit to tip against the Kiwis on their home turf. Warriors by 12 points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm. 

Statistics: NRL Stats

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