Dan Hunt in action for St George Illawarra against Newcastle

Knights v Dragons preview

Knights v Dragons
Hunter Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

A match that could go a long way towards defining which direction the respective seasons of these two clubs goes sees an injury-ravaged Newcastle side hosting the out-of-form Dragons.

It hasn’t been a good few weeks for either of these clubs who both head into Round 13 on the back of consecutive losses. Newcastle in particular will be ruing their performance against the Warriors two weeks ago. Coming off an ultra-impressive 44-8 mauling of Canterbury in Round 10, the Knights looked to be the one side that might make a challenge for one of the top four spots seemingly destined for Souths, Melbourne, the Roosters and Manly, but a surprise loss away to the Warriors put any such lofty thoughts on hold and after throwing away a 12-0 lead against Souths last Saturday night even their spot in the top eight isn’t looking so assured.

Newcastle will be without captain Kurt Gidley for the next six weeks with a foot injury although they appear to have dodged a bullet with fullback Darius Boyd cleared of what initially appeared to be a serious knee injury suffered a fortnight ago. He was eventually cleared to play Origin on Wednesday night but it remains to be seen whether or not he backs up.

More than anything, the Knights just need a confidence-building win this week given that, the past few weeks aside, they have made considerable strides in 2013.

Not so much the Dragons, who have failed to hit any great heights at any stage this season and are in danger of falling out of finals contention if they don’t notch a few more wins sooner rather than later. It must have been a particularly frustrating month for the St George Illawarra faithful who had their hopes raised when new arrival Josh Dugan played a starring role in his first game for the club against Parramatta three weeks ago.

In that moment it appeared Dugan could well be the missing link in the side’s stuttering attack, yet only a week later they failed to post a single point in a 19-0 loss to Penrith at WIN Jubilee.

Adding to the uncertainty are the ongoing rumours that five-eighth Jamie Soward could be out the door before the year is out. Soward recently inked a four-year deal with the Panthers and after struggling or form over the past few weeks coach Steve Price has given him some “time out” this week to see where his head is at. He will play for the Illawarra Cutter this week – a huge blow given that at his best he can be a match-winner.

One of five sides locked together at the bottom of the NRL ladder on eight points, the Dragons already find themselves four points out of the eight and another loss this week could place them on the critical list.

Then again, they have already beaten the Knights once this season and clashes between these two sides inevitably produce something special given the close links that Knights coach Wayne Bennett and key duo Boyd and Jeremy Smith share, having won a premiership at the Dragons just three years ago, while Adam Cuthbertson is another recent Dragons ‘old boy’.

Chris Houston returns to the starting side after spending two weeks playing NSW Cup, with Alex McKinnon sidelined with an ankle injury. The return of Darius Boyd at fullback means Kevin Naiqama has been shifted to the wing in place of the injured Akuila Uate. Matt Hilder is also out injured with Neville Costigan and Adam Clydesdale coming into the side on an extended bench.

Soward’s dumping means that Chase Stanley moves to five-eighth in a reshuffled St George Illawarra outfit. Nathan Green gets his chance in the centres while Dan Hunt is a welcome addition after missing the Bulldogs game with a knee injury.

Wayne Bennett is poised to break the all-time record for games coached in the NRL this weekend when he coaches his 670th game – moving past Tim Sheens in the process.
However, his former protégé Steve Price could join rare company if the Dragons can spring an upset – of the 89 coaches Bennett has faced over the years, only three (David Furner, Phil Gould and Anthony Griffin) have enjoyed victory in each of their first four meetings. Price currently sits on three and will be hoping he can continue the momentum. 

Ironically, the Dragons boast a wonderful record at Hunter Stadium, having won their past eight games there dating back to 2004 and 12 from 14 all-time – although 10 of those have been by 10 points or less.

Watch Out Knights: The Dragons haven’t exactly set the world on fire this year but one man who has stood tall every single time he has taken the field is Trent Merrin. The NSW forward has adapted quickly to his new role in the back row this season with an average 135 metres and 34 tackles per game. He is also the man who poses the biggest threat to the defensive line with 20 tackle-breaks and an NRL-best 30 offloads.

Watch Out Dragons: Although they have the always dangerous Akuila Uate lurking on the right wing, the Knights have been at their most dangerous in 2013 when attacking on the left. This shouldn’t come as any great surprise – just like at the Dragons, a favourite play of theirs is to have fullback Darius Boyd wrapping around to the left and feeding his outside men when an opportunity springs up. Newcastle’s left winger James McManus has scored 11 tries in 12 games this season

Plays To Watch: The Tyrone Roberts show-and-go. A play not seen a whole lot since the early 1990s when the likes of Benny Elias and Ricky Stuart had it perfected, Roberts has delved deep into the archives for this move yet it has already brought him considerable success in 2013. He produced a classic to score a clever solo try against North Queensland in Round 3, then did it again a week later against Canberra. In fact, Roberts’ running game has added a new dimension to the Knights’ halves this season and he is quick to punish any defenders that rush up that him too quickly. Roberts loves to dummy and run – as evidenced when he sent Darius Boyd across the line against Canterbury three weeks ago. Roberts’ five line-breaks for the Knights this season is only bettered by wingers James McManus and Akuila Uate. Keep an eye on him when given room to move on the left.

Key Match-Up: Darius Boyd v Josh Dugan. Boyd is such an important man in this Newcastle line-up. His kick-returns are always lethal but it is his ability to chime into the backline that makes him so hard to defend against. Most fullbacks do the same these days but none do it as well as Boyd does on the left edge. 

Of course, Dugan is just as important to St George Illawarra’s cause. After a spectacular two-try debut against Parramatta he has been a lot quieter the past two weeks but remains one player that can turn this match on its head.

Where It Will Be Won: In the grind. Let’s face it, this Dragons outfit isn’t known for tearing opponents apart. Even when they were winning premierships under Wayne Bennett, they did so by grinding their opponents into submission and maintaining a brick wall in defence. They’ll need to get down and dirty again this week if they are to spring an upset, but the onus is also on Newcastle to show they are willing to knuckle down after consecutive losses.

The History: Played 27; Dragons 18, Knights 9. St George Illawarra’s current eight-game winning streak at Hunter Stadium is the longest active streak by any side at an away venue.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Luke Potter; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Luke Patten.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Knights v Dragons clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Download the NRL Live 2013 App and watch every NRL match on your Smart Phone. Download now for iPhone or Android

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm AEST.

The Way We See It: It is judgment day for Newcastle. After a great start to the year, their season has taken some hits of late and with a tough trip to Melbourne coming up next week they can’t afford to slip up here. St George Illawarra are even more desperate for the win, sitting four points further back on the NRL ladder, but it’s hard to see them having enough points in them to trouble the Knights at Hunter Stadium. Newcastle grow another leg when playing at home and they should come away with the points here. Knights by 12.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.