Newcastle Knights v Cronulla Sharks
Newcastle won’t be leaving anything in the tank here given defeat would almost certainly run the red pen through their 2012 premiership campaign – and they’ll need all their stars fit and firing up against a Sharks side that bounced back to their punishing best when savaging the Warriors in Auckland last week.
After displaying pluck and flair in successive victories over the Sea Eagles, Warriors and Raiders the Knights had their momentum lanced by competition front-runners Canterbury last week – the 26-10 defeat a grim reminder of the gulf between the top end of the table and the teams scrambling in the middle ground.
All is not lost but a win on Monday night is imperative – Newcastle sit in 10th place, the second-highest ranked of four sides on 22 competition points one win adrift of the eighth-placed Wests Tigers.
Meanwhile the Sharks silenced their knockers and delivered themselves a huge shot of self-belief when arresting their worrying slide (just one competition point from four games) with a dominant victory across the ditch.
With Todd Carney and Paul Gallen leading the way the Sharks simply mauled their Kiwi opponents, with the win propelling them to fifth place on the ladder, just one competition point off Manly and a slot in the all-important top four. While they probably need one win from their remaining four games to ensure finals participation, three from four might nab them a spot in the top half of the eight.
In Newcastle team changes Kade Snowden makes a welcome return up front for Zane Tetevano who is relegated to the interchange. Neville Costigan is slated to start at lock, with Alex McKinnon benched.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has stuck firm with the 17 who got the job done against the Warriors.
The Sharks will have plenty of nerves heading up the F3 – they haven’t won in Newcastle since 2006 and have secured just four wins among 13 losses in the Steel City.
Meanwhile Newcastle are poised to restrict the same opponent to a converted try or less for a third time in a row for just the third occasion in club history.
Watch Out Knights: Paul Gallen is certain to lead by example again after hitting the ground running last week. Back from injury Gallen carved out 20 runs for 183 metres – marginally down on his NRL-leading 197 metres a game. The Sharks’ skipper has added incentive to run hard this week – he requires just seven more runs for 4000 in his career. Giving him 10 metres a time that’s 40 kilometres of hard-earned toil! Gallen’s offloads are sure to spark some attack too – he ranks second in the league with 38 a game, and he added three against the Knights in their last match-up.
Just watch Andrew Fifita fire up any time he gets within striking distance of the try-line – the big guy powered over for two tries from close range last week and will be hungry for more.
Knights halves Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts simply have to come up with some great attacking kicks this week. The Sharks are certainly vulnerable, having conceded 20 tries to the boot, the fourth most in the comp. Unfortunately the Knights have come up with just six tries from kicks… the fewest in the comp by far.
Danger Sign: If Todd Carney is allowed to dominate at first or second receiver. Carney bamboozled the Warriors to record a 25-point haul last week – in that sort of mood he could make things ugly again here.
Watch Out Sharks: With their season on the line it’s time Jarrod Mullen stood up. The No.6 boasts six wins from seven matches against the Sharks; however he’s yet to trouble the scorer except for two field goals. Having scored four tries at pivot in 2012 he’ll be hoping to add to his tally en route to becoming the all-time leading Knights try-scorer in the No.6 before the season is finished.
Kade Snowden is destined to put in another big effort against his former club – the prop really took it to the Sharks’ engine room the last time, making 20 hit-ups and 166 metres.
Adam Cuthbertson will have just one thing on his mind: second-phase play. The interchange forward leads his team-mates for offloads with 32 – 14 more than the next most offered by Kade Snowden.
Danger Sign: If the Knights send it wide to Akuila Uate and he beats his opposite John Williams early in proceedings the floodgates could open on the right edge. Uate leads all players for line-breaks with 22 and has scored 16 tries in 18 games.
Dane Gagai v Colin Best: An absorbing head-to-head battle pitting youth versus experience. ‘Dynamite Dane’ will be looking to add to his excellent strike rate in attack – he’s bagged four try assists, four line-breaks, four line-break assists and three tries in just eight games. Meanwhile Best is in solid form as the clock winds down on his career – he leads his side for line-breaks (nine) and ranks third among all centres for tackle busts (28).
Where It Will Be Won: The ability of the Knights’ defenders to get to the Sharks’ ball-runners in numbers and limit their offloads. Cronulla lead the league for offloads, averaging almost 13 each game (17 against the Knights the last time they met). Meanwhile Newcastle are really struggling to stop second-phase play, leaking 13 offloads every 80 minutes (the most in the comp).
The History: Played 39; Knights 23, Sharks 15, drawn 1. The Knights have been dominant in recent clashes, winning six of the past eight including the past four straight. The Novocastrians boast an imposing 12-4 winning record at Hunter Stadium, with one game drawn.
The Last Time They Met: The Knights were never threatened when defeating the Sharks 18-6 in a dour battle at Toyota Stadium in Round 2.
Akuila Uate drew first blood for the visitors seven minutes into the contest, crossing in the right corner after some smart assistance from centre Wes Naiqama who scooped up a spilled Jarrod Mullen cross-field bomb and swept the ball wide to his winger. Naiqama added the extras for a 6-nil lead the Knights would hold to the halftime break.
Back-rower Chris Houston embarrassed the Sharks’ goal-line defenders when he pushed through from first receiver for an all-too-easy four-pointer that made it 12-nil just three minutes into the second section.
The Knights added to their points tally in the 64th minute when Junior S’au crashed over on the left edge, exposing yet again some flimsy Sharks defence.
Cronulla were only able to get on the scoreboard in the final minute of play when Ben Pomeroy dived on a loose ball in the Knights’ in-goal after an opposition player was ruled to have raked the Steeden free from Sharks fullback Nathan Gardner as he was attempting to ground for a try.
The Sharks simply could not convert their chances in attack – they made seven line-breaks throughout the afternoon to the Knights’ three and enjoyed a 233-metre advantage in running metres. However errors (17) and poor execution (60 per cent completions) ruined their chances.
Kade Snowden had a strong game up front for the Knights, making 20 hit-ups and 166 metres, while fullback Gardner was the Sharks’ best with 178 metres and 10 tackle-breaks.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.
The Way We See It: Something tells us the 2012 season has a few more twists in store before the 26 scheduled rounds are done… and this could be one of them. At home with everything on the line and with huge expectations from their fans Newcastle are likely to come out firing on all cylinders. Passion can make up for the gap in form between the sides. It’s the Knights by six points in a ding-dong battle.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats