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Newcastle Knights v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Hunter Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Wayne Bennett won’t be figuring in the finals for the first time in 21 years but his charges can still throw a spanner in the works of the semis-bound Rabbitohs who need the two competition points here to guarantee a spot in the all-important top four.

The bunnies will have plenty of nerves during the coach ride up the F3 – they have won just two of 18 matches in Newcastle, plus the Knights have defeated South Sydney more times than any other opponent (25 to date). Then there’s the added incentive for the Knights of performing well in front of their ‘old boys’, as is the tradition in the final games of the season up in the Hunter.

Newcastle’s faint finals hopes were crushed under the weight of North Queensland’s early onslaught in Townsville last Saturday night, with the Cowboys galloping to an 18-4 lead after 27 minutes. Newcastle rallied to close to within four points at halftime but a try-less second 40 put paid to their finals dream.

Meanwhile the under-the-microscope Rabbitohs put the dramas of Issac Luke’s shock axing behind them to annihilate Parramatta 38-6 and hand the Eels their first wooden spoon since 1972.

In particular Greg Inglis roared back to the sort of form he displayed prior to his three-game suspension in Round 20, scoring two punishing tries from rushes from five metres from the opposition try-line and laying on three four-pointers for gleeful team-mates.

Wayne Bennett has made a couple of tweaks to his squad this week with Alex McKinnon to start in the second row and Rob Rochow benched. Kevin Naiqama rounds out their extended interchange.

Meanwhile Michael Maguire has named an unchanged starting line-up – although Issac Luke has been added to the interchange along with Ben Lowe and Justin Hunt.

This looms as a key game in South Sydney’s premiership quest: a win would see them sew up third spot on the ladder, while a loss and wins by North Queensland and Manly would see them fall to fifth and without the second bite at the cherry this year’s new finals system affords.  

They’ll be hoping for a better result than from the corresponding game last year when the Knights shattered their semi-finals dream with a 40-24 walloping in Newcastle.

It’s a milestone week for Neville Costigan who suits up for his 150th NRL game.

Watch Out Knights: If Newcastle don’t shut down the plays early and the Rabbitohs are able to shift the ball wide to their wingers the home team could be facing a hiding. No team can match the potency of wingers Nathan Merritt and Andrew Everingham who have posted 29 tries between them.

The ball may not even need to get to the wingers given the potency of fullback Greg Inglis and second-rower Dave Taylor on the fringes. Inglis has punched out 19 line-breaks and bagged 10 tries so far. He favours the left side of the field and will be short odds to add to his 14 try assists and 13 line-break assists here – look for him to ‘spot’ Jarrod Mullen in the defensive line. Meanwhile Dave Taylor will rumble down the right edge; the Coal Train has tallied 14 line-breaks (most by a back-rower) and nine tries plus 34 offloads. Tyrone Roberts and Timana Tahu will have their work cut out keeping him quiet.  

Sam Burgess will be getting excited about playing semi-finals footy and will relish inflicting further damage to the Knights after making two line-breaks the last time they met (see below).

Danger Sign: The Issac Luke bounce-back factor. Should he be selected in the final 17 you can guarantee Luke will be out to prove his worth when he’s injected off the bench. A master at gaining territory for his side out of dummy-half Luke has been a major factor in the South Sydney resurgence – no player has run more often from the ruck (212 runs to date).   

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Centres Timana Tahu and Dane Gagai have been bright lights in a mixed season for the Hunter brigade. In particular Tahu should get plenty of chances to add to his seven tries for the year, with Souths’ right-side defence proving nowhere near as strong as their left edge (35 tries conceded compared to 26). Meanwhile Newcastle prefer to attack the left side, with 35 tries posted to date.

Darius Boyd (12 try assists, 15 line-break assists) will be keen to impress the Old Boys and get the better of Maroons team-mate Inglis.

Expect Knights hooker Danny Buderus to work the short blind side on the left edge – Newcastle have registered the third-most short-side shifts on that side of the field (almost seven a game).

Danger Sign: Jarrod Mullen has displayed rocks-or-diamonds form of late but when he’s on song few playmakers can match his brilliance. In their Round 23 win over the Sharks Mullen scored a try and added three try assists. Mullen requires three more try assists to hit 100 in his career. The key is the Knights’ forwards – if they gain momentum early it will provide Mullen with the platform to conjure the opportunities. Kade Snowden (106 metres), Zeb Taia (98 metres) and Willie Mason (92 metres) need to better their season average marks here.

Akuila Uate v Nathan Merritt: A battle between two of the game’s most prolific try-scorers, with Uate still within striking distance of this year’s leading mark with just one game to go, while last-year’s equal top try-scorer Merritt will be keen to finish the regular rounds with a flourish after his double last week that took his tally to 14 for the season. Uate (18 tries) trails Ben Barba by two scoring plays and will no doubt go looking for the ball at every opportunity. Uate will also be looking to maintain his lead over Barba in the line-breaks category (24 to 23). In the corresponding clash last year Uate shattered Souths’ finals dreams with four tries and the most metres gained by a Knights player on record (328). Meanwhile Merritt will be hoping playmakers John Sutton and Adam Reynolds head left more than they head right – he trails team-mate Andrew Everingham by one try in the team stakes.     

Where It Will Be Won: Making sure the clearing kicks find open space. Darius Boyd and Greg Inglis will spark plenty of damaging counter-attack if given the chance, as will Akuila Uate and Nathan Merritt, so both sides will need to ensure they find the gaps when they punt late in the tackle count. Newcastle are below average to date (53 per cent) while worryingly Souths are the worst side at kicking away from the opposition (just 44 per cent). This will be a good test for Adam Reynolds with the finals on the horizon.     

The History: Played 33; Knights 25, Rabbitohs 8. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes – although the Knights boast a whopping 16-2 advantage at Hunter Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: Souths smashed the Knights 34-14 at ANZ Stadium in Round 18.  

The match was as good as over when Issac Luke crossed for the bunnies’ fourth try in the 24th minute for a 24-4 lead; however Akuila Uate gave the visiting fans some hope when he scored three minutes before halftime to trim their deficit to 14 at oranges.

Back-to-back tries to Nathan Peats and Chris McQueen midway through the second stanza put the game to bed before Uate added a late try for the Novocastrians to round out the scoring.

Newcastle simply had no answer to Souths’ powerful running game; the red and green rushed nine line-breaks past the frazzled visitors, with coach Wayne Bennett incensed at his side’s 48 missed tackles and poor 65 per cent completions rate.

Souths’ forwards were devastating in attack, with Sam Burgess, Michael Crocker and Dave Taylor each contributing two line-breaks. Halfback Adam Reynolds chimed in with two try assists.

Newcastle were best served by Uate (three line-breaks, two tries) and centres Dane Gagai (two try assists, six tackle-breaks) and Timana Tahu (17 runs for 151 metres).

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: Newcastle are capable of ending what’s been a borderline disappointing season with an upset victory here. It all depends on whether Souths turn up ready to play – already guaranteed just their second semi-finals berth since 1989 the danger is their inexperienced unit might have their minds on next week’s game instead. However if Michael Maguire and his staff are able to get them to focus they should be too strong; we figure he’ll be ramming home the importance of entering the playoffs with confidence. Souths by six points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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