Knights v Bulldogs preview

Newcastle Knights v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Hunter Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

A combined 12 wins in a row guarantee this clash match-of-the-round status as the Knights look to sustain their stirring late push for the semi-finals up against the new premiership favourites Canterbury.

Hunter Stadium will bellow out maximum decibels as Knights fans get behind their side following some stunning form of the past three weeks. In that period they’ve notched comprehensive wins over premiers Manly and also Canberra, as well as a gutsy escape against the Warriors, to sit on the brink of a place in the top eight – a prospect that seemed unthinkable just a month ago.

But they need the momentum to continue this Close The Gap Round, given they are one of four sides on 22 competition points fighting for what is likely to be just one available berth in the playoffs.

Meanwhile Canterbury mixed brilliance with composure to power away from the accomplished Cowboys last week and register their ninth win in succession. Victory here would equal their second-best winning streak achieved back in 2004 – although they are still eight wins off their club benchmark set in 2002. They would equal that should they remain undefeated through to the grand final… and win the decider.

Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett has made just the one cosmetic tweak to the 17 that got the job done against the Raiders, elevating Neville Costigan to start at lock, with Alex McKinnon hitting the bench.

Likewise Des Hasler has made just one change to the Bulldogs’ starting side, promoting Aidan Tolman and relegating Martin Taupau to the interchange. Harlan Alaalatoa joins the squad as 18th man.

It’s a milestone week for ’Dogs second-rower Frank Pritchard, who will hit 2000 career runs with his fifth hit-up of the evening.

Watch Out Knights: Is there any stopping Ben Barba and Josh Morris? Barba’s hat-trick last week saw him vault over team-mate Morris to head the NRL try-scorer’s list (with 17); he also joined Nigel Vagana (2001-03) as the only players in Bulldogs history to score 15 tries in three consecutive seasons. Barba’s opening two tries added to the ’Dogs’ stunning record from long range – they’ve scored 14 tries from inside their own half.

Attacking kicks have yielded Canterbury an NRL-high 22 tries so far in 2012. In particular Akuila Uate, Kevin Naiqama, Dane Gagai and Timana Tahu can expect a workout under the high ball given the Knights have a lowly 45 per cent success rate defusing cross-field bombs. You can bet Krisnan Inu (eight tries in eight games) will be licking his lips in anticipation.

Also, Canterbury have been devastating away from home this year, winning eight of their 10 games on the road – the best return in the NRL and two more wins than they’ve banked at home! Tellingly they’ve racked up 46 tries in those 10 clashes on foreign turf.  

Danger Sign: If the Bulldogs aren’t felled and instead are permitted to stand and offload it could be a long 80 minutes for the Knights. Barba is the maestro at being in the right place at the right time – plus the Bulldogs lead all-comers in promoting second-phase play (12.5 offloads per game). What’s worse, the Knights have struggled to contain offloads more than any other side, leaking an NRL-high 13.2 each outing.

Watch Out Bulldogs: After struggling in attack for much of 2012 the Knights have caught fire at the business end of the season. A month ago their scoring average was the fifth-lowest in the NRL, with just 17.5 points per game. But in the past three weeks they’ve averaged almost 30 points per game. Much of that has been due to the powerful running of their centres and wingers who have accounted for 12 of 16 tries in that time. Akuila Uate has bagged four, Kevin Naiqama three (in two games), Dane Gagai two and Timana Tahu one. Throw in two tries each to James MacManus (before his injury in Round 19) and halfback Tyrone Roberts, plus one to Darius Boyd and it’s clear the Knights have a backline capable of taking down any opponent.

Des Hasler will be keen to put Willie Mason off his game early. The former Bulldog has been solid up front for Newcastle, toiling for 93 metres in an average 38 minutes of game time. Mason’s improved discipline (just two errors all year) has been a shining example to team-mates who have also been buoyed by his infectious enthusiasm. He’s worth his spot for his presence alone.   

Tyrone Roberts is an understated strength at halfback; whippet-fast and with an excellent dummy he will provide headaches attempting to squeeze past the Bulldogs’ big men. 

Danger Sign: Akuila Uate has rediscovered his attacking mojo! The Fijian has thankfully rid his game of the crab-like cross-field running that marred the first half of his season and has returned to the straight, powerful, jinking style that earned him the reputation as the toughest player in the NRL to halt. Uate has chalked up 20 line-breaks so far – just one behind Ben Barba.

Darius Boyd v Ben Barba: Now he’s on the scoreboard in 2012 Darius Boyd might be ready to cut loose with increased involvement in attack. The Knights’ No.1 has 10 try assists and 10 line-break assists; he’ll look to link with the pace and flair outside him at every opportunity. As for Barba, the fact he’s the competition’s leading try-scorer (17), line-break runner (21) and tackle-buster (121) says it all.

Where It Will Be Won: Shutting down the attack before the ball is spread wide. The Knights and the Bulldogs boast two of the most potent backlines in the competition so limiting chances on the fringes will be crucial. Canterbury have the advantage in defence, missing the second-fewest tackles and boasting the second-best effectiveness (88.1 per cent); meanwhile the Knights miss the fifth-most tackles and have the least-effective defence (85.5 per cent). Not a lot of difference on paper, but it translates to plenty on the field.  

The History: Played 18; Bulldogs 18, Knights 17, drawn 1. The Knights have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides and boast an 11-5 advantage at Hunter Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Knights upset the Bulldogs 20-6 at ANZ Stadium in Round 4, severing Canterbury’s three-game winning streak to open 2012.

The Knights raced to a 12-nil lead at halftime and actually led 20-nil with two minutes remaining before a last-ditch try to Joel Romelo averted a whitewash.

Newcastle started brilliantly when Jarrod Mullen sent Kade Snowden through a gap 10 metres out from the Canterbury goal line, the prop passing to fellow bookend Richie Fa’aoso for a 6-nil scoreline with seven minutes on the clock.

They extended their lead 11 minutes later when Mullen brushed through Dene Halatau from close range.

A Kurt Gidley penalty goal seven minutes after halftime gave Newcastle a 14-point buffer before Gidley iced their afternoon with eight minutes to play; the five-eighth took on the line 10 metres out, stood in the tackle and delay-offloaded to Alex McKinnon who crossed on the right edge to register his first try in Newcastle colours.

Romelo’s consolation four-pointer came after Ben Barba grasped the ball at first receiver and found a gaping hole on the left edge.

Poor completions and a high error count cruelled the Bulldogs’ chances – they got through only 24 of 38 sets (63 per cent) and committed 15 mistakes. Conversely the Knights respected the ball (81 per cent completions) and made just seven errors.

Wearing the No.7 jersey Mullen was a standout for the Knights, while Snowden was a wrecking ball up front (162 metres).

Ben Barba tried hard to spark his side, adding a game-high 19 runs and 10 tackle-breaks. Sam Kasiano had a horror afternoon with his hands, dropping the ball on four occasions.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: Second-guessing themselves might be an unavoidable obstacle for the Bulldogs this week. They’ve seen what’s happened to the Storm and Broncos recently and with so many consecutive wins under their belt it’s only natural they start to wonder whether they might be due a dip in form. They need to banish those thoughts and concentrate on what has worked so well for them so far. This is a huge game for the Knights and if they enter the arena in the right frame of mind they can spring an upset. Given the unpredictable nature of this year’s competition, that’s the way we are leaning. Knights by six points.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats