Bulldogs v Knights
Saturday, 7.30pm (AEST)
We all know how much Bulldogs coach Des Hasler detests the spotlight, but Canterbury-Bankstown fans must be enjoying the view on top of this wacky NRL universe. And so they should – it's not every day you have the rugby league's version of Michael Jordan coming up big in the clutch for you (although that has occurred twice in the past fortnight).
But if the Bulldogs truly want to join the modern elite, if they want to be recognised as a genuine contender, they'll have to exorcise the demons of 2013. And that means exacting some revenge on a Newcastle team that pulled their pants down three times last year – including the 22-6 semi-final loss that ended their premiership hopes.
The blue-and-whites were out in their droves last Friday, wearing South Sydney's biggest gut punches before the little bloke in their No. 7 once again threw a haymaker to deliver a famous 15-14 knockout victory.
It was their third straight one-point victory of the season, and Trent Hodkinson's second consecutive game-winner, which earns him the title of the biggest clutch player of the season. But the comeback story of the year has some decent big men in the blue-and-white corner too, not least the superhuman efforts of James Graham and Aiden Tolman.
On the other hand, Newcastle were handed a beat-down of their own on the same night, taught a heavy 32-6 lesson by Brisbane on their own turf.
Nothing clicked at all for the Novocastrians last week. They had more possession, more possession in opposition territory, made more offloads, missed fewer tackles, forced more line drop-outs, and received more penalties. But they lost it all where it counts – on the scoreboard – and in 14th spot, they need a win to keep within distance of the competition pacesetters.
Coach Wayne Bennett regains prop Kade Snowden from a concussion rest, but has lost the suspended Willie Mason. The Bulldogs are unchanged.
Watch Out Bulldogs: The two blokes who gave the Bulldogs the most headaches last season, centres Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua, have broken more than 60 tackles between them this year and have established themselves as Newcastle's main strike weapons.
Five-eighth Josh Reynolds is playing some hot football right now, but he's also missed a team-high 16 tackles. Target acquired.
Watch Out Knights: The 'Berries are doing it all on defence right now – conceding a league-low 13 points a game. In fact, they're the only team not to give up 100 points in total so far this season and the best of the four teams with five wins to their name. They're also scoring at a rate of 22 points a game, so it's safe to assume Newcastle need more than the 16 points they're putting up every week.
Plays To Watch: The overlapping Darius Boyd is still Wayne Bennett's go-to play, but judging by the amount of times Robbie Rochow (23) and Beau Scott (21) have been tackled inside the opposition red zone, the Kangaroos winger is opting for the direct line often and early.
On the flipside, the Bulldogs found plenty of success on their right edge with Tim Lafai and Corey Thompson making plenty of metres down that channel against South Sydney last Friday. It looks their most likely avenue to the try line.
Where It Will Be Won: Need we say it? Newcastle's Tyrone Roberts is converting at a strike rate of 75 per cent, and Gidley isn't that much better. And then there's the guy with ice in his veins, Trent Hodkinson, who's missed just three attempts all year. We just can't afford not to tell you that Bulldogs games are being decided by the boot these days.
The History: Played 41; Newcastle 20, Canterbury-Bankstown 20, drawn 1. Bragging rights go on the line, at least until another possible re-match in the post-season, with the two sides locked at 20 wins apiece.
Recent history points to the Knights gaining the overall advantage, having won their past three clashes – all last season. In fact, the Novocastrians have had the Bulldogs' number since 2010, winning four of their past five and six of their past eight.
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What Are The Odds: Finally, the punters are getting behind a favourite! It's all one-way traffic in this one with Sportsbet.com.au, with 10 times the money coming for the Bulldogs at $1.47. The Knights are almost friendless at $2.70.
Match Officials: Referees – Henry Perenara & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: We like Newcastle's chances of a top-eight finish this year. In fact, before season kickoff, we pencilled them in as top four elite. And while we stick by them to be there in September, we're bigger Michael Jordan fans than Newcastle ones. Bulldogs, not by one, but by seven.