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Knights v Raiders
Hunter Stadium
Sunday 6.30pm

This Easter Sunday match promises to be a thrilling affair between two in-form attacking sides that are each coming off resounding victories.

And there’s a sentence you probably weren’t expecting to read in relation to the Round 4 match between Newcastle and Canberra, after each was not only outclassed but humbled in scoreless losses in Round 2.

Okay, so it might be a bit of a stretch to describe both clubs as “in form”, but wow – who picked those performances coming from the Knights and Raiders last week?

The Raiders were perhaps the more abject in Round 2, capitulating 36-0 to a much-improved Titans outfit in melting heat up at Skilled Park in the wake of the Josh Dugan sacking. The Knights weren’t great either but they were simply outclassed and outmuscled 32-0 by a very strong Sea Eagles line-up.

Despite all that, the success of the Knights last round was probably the more surprising. The Green Machine got to play host to St George Illawarra, who have been lacklustre at best so far in 2013. They also had the power of the ‘hoodoo’ behind them as the Saints again failed to overcome what is now a 13-year losing streak in the nation’s capital. Still, 30-17 was a commanding result against a side that still boasts plenty of quality and representative experience.

The Knights, on the other hand, had to contend with Jonathan Thurston’s Cowboys in a match where plenty were tipping the visitors to take the chocolates. To make their mission harder, injury forced three late changes, including the loss of skipper and halfback Kurt Gidley. But young Tyrone Roberts stepped in with one of the finest games of his young career as the Knights ran riot, blowing the Cowboys away to the tune of 34-6. And that too after conceding the first try and much of the early possession.

It all makes for an interesting proposition this Sunday evening.

Knights coach Wayne Bennett has been forced into a raft of changes, although Roberts retains the halfback spot with Gidley still out. Danny Buderus will start at hooker after being a late addition to the bench last week, with Neville Costigan dropping back to the pine.  David Fa'alogo has again been named at prop despite starting from the bench last week, and Robbie Rochow moves back to the second row to replace Beau Scott who has succumbed to a groin strain. Alex McKinnon has been named at centre, where he ended up playing last week following Timana Tahu’s withdrawal, despite the fact Tahu has been named on the bench this week. Korbin Sims, younger brother of Ashton and Tariq, will play his second NRL game after retaining his bench spot.
The Raiders are unchanged, with coach David Furner adding Matt McIlwrick to a five-man bench.

Watch Out Knights: The rejuvenated Raiders were great with the ball last week. Coach Furner would have been content with an 80 per cent completion rate, but he would have been delighted with the way they translated that into yardage – the Green Machine churned through more running metres than any other side in Round 3, clocking up 1632 metres. They did it in the forwards and in the backs – all four men in the prop rotation gained more than 100 metres, while tireless lock Shaun Fensom gained 160 metres from a game-high 17 runs. New fullback Reece Robinson was awesome with 141 metres and two tries, while sharpshooting centre Jarrod Croker looks to have regained his points-scoring mojo, snapping five from five with the boot while racking up two tries and 156 metres. The Knights will have to do a much better job of disrupting the Raiders’ flow than St George Illawarra did.

Watch Out Raiders: You’d think any side that lost Kurt Gidley immediately before kick-off would be right up against it, but Roberts stepped in admirably. He scored his side’s first try, set up another, slotted five from seven with the boot, and surprisingly busted an equal-match-high five tackles. 

His partnership with five-eighth Jarrod Mullen will be crucial but Mullen showed last week he is also capable of lifting in Gidley’s absence. Mullen not only laid on one try, he controlled the game beautifully with the boot, kicking for a staggering 657 metres – and finding open space seemingly every time. If he can get opposition backs turning round to retrieve the ball regularly, the Knights will be able to start their defensive sets in great position.

Plays To Watch: Akuila Uate roaming infield to take as many hit-ups as humanly possible (18 runs for 165 metres last week); Dream Team gun Shaun Fensom working himself to a standstill, following game highs in tackles (47), runs (17) and metres (160) last week; precision long kicks from Mullen, Robinson and Sandor Earl to cause havoc on their kick returns (combined 13 tackle-breaks last week); and more damage from the latest Sims brother. Young Korbin made an imprint on last week’s game, making 97 metres from nine runs but more spectacularly putting a monster of a hit on his older brother Ashton that should put the Raiders men on notice that he’s here to play.

Key Match-Up: Kade Snowden v Dave Shillington. The two big props put in massive performances last week, notching big numbers and good minutes on-field (Snowden 134 metres and 20 tackles, Shillington 137 metres and 19 tackles). 

Having represented New South Wales and Queensland respectively in Origin football, they should have no shortage of reasons to snarl at each other. Snowden looked like a man on a mission last week, while Shillington put in a typically polished performance. When they meet in the middle each will be looking to sit the other firmly on his backside.

Where It Will Be Won: Ball control. It sounds obvious – how many coaches have we heard lament their team’s poor handling after a loss? – but it’s extra significant here.

That’s because after three rounds the Knights spill the ball less than any other side except the Dragons, while Canberra have the worst ball control in the competition. Their 13 errors per game is well over the nine Newcastle are averaging, and if these teams replicate those numbers Canberra will be starting from a long way behind.

The History: Played 38; Canberra 20, Newcastle 16, drawn 2. The Raiders may have the edge overall but they have a terrible record in the Hunter, claiming just five wins from 17 starts. The last eight matches are split four apiece. Despite the even spread of results the individual games haven’t been close – in those eight contests the victors have run away with it by more than 22 points per game!

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Matt Noyen; Video Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Rodwell.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 6.30pm.

The Way We See It: To paraphrase Wayne Bennett, it will depend to some degree which Knights side gets off the bus. Canberra aren’t traditionally a team that travels well, and although they won on their last venture up the F3 (32-16 in Round 14 last year) it’s a ground where they tend to lose, and lose badly. 

You’d have to think it unlikely both sides will replicate last week’s form, making this tough to pick, but we liked what we saw from Newcastle. Given the history of blowouts we’ll say Knights by 13+.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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