Knights v Titans
Only when the day comes that Alex McKinnon walks out onto the centre of Hunter Stadium will Newcastle witness an outpouring of emotion to rival that which will happen on Sunday as the guest of honour makes his return to the Steel City for the RiseForAlex Round.
When Newcastle as a city has endured tough times they have turned to the football team for support but for the second time since his tragic accident in Round 3, this time the community will come forth in support of one of their own.
Six days after McKinnon was injured against the Storm, the Sharks travelled to Hunter Stadium and were faced by a Knights team struggling to deal with an unprecedented situation yet united in their determination to do their mate proud.
They blew the Sharks out of the water on that day and led 26-0 at half-time and a similarly imposing proposition faces the Titans this weekend.
Knights prop Willie Mason said on Monday that the emotion of this occasion will be even greater than that in Round 4 and if the home side can channel that emotion and not be distracted by it, the prospect of a Titans win seems even smaller.
But winning when no one gives them a chance seems to be something of a Titans forte as their win over the Rabbitohs in Round 17 attests. They have recorded away victories against the Sharks, Raiders, Storm, Wests Tigers and Rabbitohs and seem to respond better when faced with adversity.
They will face few greater challenges than a Newcastle team on a three-match winning streak and with more than 30,000 Novocastrians there in support but if they hold out any hope of a finals berth in 2014, this is a game they somehow have to find a way to win.
They will have to do so without two of their most senior players with Greg Bird (suspension) and William Zillman (hamstring injury) both unavailable. Kevin Gordon will move from the wing to fullback for just the third time in 109 career NRL games.
The Knights have named the same 17 that defeated the Sharks in Round 18, adding Adam Cuthbertson to the bench.
Gates at Hunter Stadium will open at 11am on Sunday and upon arrival members and fans will be entertained in a specially created RiseForAlex precinct showcasing live music, radio broadcasts and family friendly activities. A celebration for Alex will take place in the stadium pre-match and during half time.
The NRL will be donating one dollar to the RiseForAlex Fund for every rugby league fan who attends any match during Round 19 and fans can make donations by purchasing a RiseForAlex wristband that will be sold at all matches across the RiseForAlex Round (Round 19 & 20), Best and Less stores and online here. Fans can also make donations online here or by texting RiseForAlex to 0498 555 555.
The RiseForAlex Fund has been established to provide ongoing financial and medical support to the Newcastle Knights forward and is independently managed by a board of directors.
Although he is still to decide whether he will go around for a 16th season in 2015, Bailey's numbers from the past month indicate if he does call it quits he will do so at the top of his game. Bailey's 16 runs for 158 metres last Sunday against the Raiders were his highest numbers for the season, narrowly ahead of his Round 14 (16 runs, 154m), Round 17 (15 runs, 131m) and Round 15 (11 runs for 121m) performances. And watch out for that quick tap.
Watch Out Titans: It may have been another unhappy week for Darius Boyd with regards to the public perception of his personality following an awkward exchange with a journalist but there it is no coincidence that the Knights' fortunes have been tied to his improved performances on the field. Last Sunday's 38 touches against the Sharks were the most he has had in any game this year to go with three tackle-breaks and 146 running metres (his fourth highest tally of the year). Prior to that, Boyd ran for more than 200m against the Eels and scored a try and has been flourishing with the extra momentum that has been created by his forwards in recent weeks. If the Titans' defensive line finds itself going backwards, Boyd will be the man to take advantage. A Mudgeeraba Redbacks junior, Boyd has scored six tries in nine previous clashes with the Titans including two doubles.
Plays To Watch: Finally the Wayne Bennett-coached Knights are starting to play like a Wayne Bennett-coached football team, but as the master mentor announces he will be heading elsewhere in 2015, have they left their run too late. Trailing 18-0 against the Sharks last week, the Knights adopted a power game up the middle and completely tore the Sharks to shreds. Kade Snowden, Korbin Sims and David Fa'alogo were particularly effective, opening the game up for Mullen, Gidley, Boyd and Roberts to engineer try after try in quick succession. Don't expect to see too many Jarrod Mullen spiral cut-out passes until the middle third is well and truly won. The Titans showed glimpses that they were close to maximising the attacking potency of David Taylor and James Roberts on the right edge last week but were unable to do so for an extended period of time. The Titans need to construct a set to give Taylor and Roberts opportunities to go one-on-one with their opposite numbers rather than throwing them a 'Hail Mary' pass and hoping they can produce something from nothing.
Where It Will Be Won: With Kevin Gordon filling in at the poisoned chalice that is the Titans' fullback position and a halves combination still very much getting to know each other, the Knights boast a decided advantage in the key playmaking positions. Mullen remains one of the classiest halves in the competition with a passing and kicking game that few can match and with Gidley back at halfback and Boyd back to his best, the Knights all of a sudden have a much more potent look to them. Cool heads will be required on what will be an emotion-charged afternoon and this is where the home side seems to have a significant advantage.
History: Played 11; Knights 7, Titans 4. Looking for their third straight win over their closest northern neighbours, the Knights have put the Titans to the sword in their two most recent meetings, and it has been James McManus who has done all the damage. The NSW Origin rep scored twice in their 30-6 win at Robina in Round 7 last year and then backed that up with an equal club record four tries in a 46-16 hiding where the Knights led 36-0 by half-time. Hunter Stadium has not been a completely barren hunting ground for the Titans with wins in 2010 and 2012. Incredibly, only six players from that 2012 team will be lining up on Sunday.
What Are The Odds: The number of bets on each team is around 50-50 but the big bets are all on the Knights, who’ve come in from $1.47 to $1.33. Sportsbet is receiving strong money for Newcastle to win at the line, conceding 9.5 points. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Dave Munro. Touch Judges: Rickey MacFarlane and Jeff Younis; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton and Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm. Special pre-game show from 1pm dedicated to RiseForAlex celebrations.
How We See It: The head and heart are both in agreement on this one; the in-form Knights with so much to play for seem destined to deliver a victory to commemorate RiseForAlex Round. The Titans have a happy knack of producing an upset when no-one gives them a hope but given they have just one win from their past eight games, leaving Newcastle with two treasured competition points seems a bridge too far. They'll be ready for the occasion, they just don't seem to have the troops to finish the job. Newcastle by 12 points.