Newcastle Knights players Jeremy Smith and Craig Gower – both premiership winners – are looking forward to playing Sydney Roosters in the Rivalry Round because they know such a game is going to tell them exactly where their team is at.
They will get the chance today at Hunter Stadium. The Roosters are in second place behind South Sydney on the competition table, but have been promoted to premiership favouritism in the wake of stunning, back-to-back wins and a coinciding hiccup for the Rabbitohs before their trouncing of the Titans on Saturday.
Souths lost in golden point extra time to St George Illawarra last Monday night. It was the first game in which they were without superstar fullback Greg Inglis after he injured his knee playing for Queensland in State of Origin III. Inglis will be out for up to two months.
"The Roosters are in the top four and we want to be in the top four, and there is no better way to gauge yourself than playing against the top teams," said lock Smith, who was in the St George Illawarra team that beat the Roosters in the 2010 grand final.
"It's going to be a good test for us. We'll definitely find out where we stand, and what we need to improve on, and what's going to work for us. The Roosters have a big, physical pack, and you've got to match fire with fire."
Interchange utility Gower, who was in the Penrith side that won the 2003 grand final, also over the Roosters, added: "It's going to be a challenge for us, but these are the big games you want to be playing in, and we're looking forward to it."
The Roosters have won four in a row, and they did not concede a point in either of their last two. They whipped the Dragons 36-0 and then produced an even bigger margin against Cronulla, winning 40-0. Their other two wins during this stretch were against Canterbury (20-18) and Manly (18-12).
The Knights have won three in a row, over Gold Coast (46-16), Canterbury (18-12) and Penrith (32-14).
Those wins lifted Newcastle to fifth place on 22 competition points heading into Rivalry Round, from nine wins and eight losses. However, they are in a very congested area on the table, with both the Bulldogs and Raiders leapfrogging them on the ladder to 24 points following their wins on Saturday.
They know victory over the Roosters would see them reclaim their fifth position; they have a healthy points for-and-against differential of plus-95 that stands them in good stead. But a loss could see them drop to eighth should the Sharks account for the Panthers.
The Roosters, with 13 wins and four losses, are on 30 points.
In games against current top-four teams this season, the Roosters have two wins – both against Manly, 16-4 and 18-12 - and two losses, against Souths (28-10) and Melbourne (26-18).
The Knights have lost all three of their games against top-four teams – Manly, 32-0, Souths, 25-18, and Melbourne, 16-14. But the diminishing margins of those results indicates they are becoming more competitive with the top teams.
Smith said he wasn't surprised the Roosters had claimed a lofty position on the table.
"They've got a good team, with a good coaching staff," he said. "They already had a good team and then they brought Sonny Bill (Williams) in as well, so it doesn't surprise me one bit."
Gower said the Roosters had been "devastating" against the Sharks, adding: "They've got a great forward pack, good halves, Michael Jennings is playing some great football in the centres and their two wingers are exceptional.
"They're pretty well-balanced across the park, and Sonny Bill will come back in this week after missing the game against the Sharks. He adds another dimension. So it's definitely going to be a big defensive effort needed from us this weekend."
Smith, who played under Wayne Bennett's coaching at the Dragons, said the Knights were reacting better than ever to the seven-time premiership-winning mentor's approach.
"I have confidence in our structure, and what we do," Smith said. "We've really bought into what Wayne is trying to do here. Everyone is on the same page now, and it shows on the field."
Gower added that the Knights still had plenty of improvement left in them with seven matches to go before the finals.
"I think we can get a fair bit better," he said. "We started a bit slowly against the Panthers. We weren't as sharp as we could have been, and we turned over a bit too much ball as well. It's going to be a gradual thing, but I think there's definitely improvement there."