Gold Coast Titans v Newcastle Knights
Cbus Super Stadium
Sunday, 5.30pm (Qld time)
The Newcastle Knights have made the perfect start to their 2015 campaign with surprise back-to-back wins, but they'll face a tough task staying undefeated on the Gold Coast on Sunday against a Titans team boosted by the return of three first-choice starters.
Greg Bird, Dave Taylor and Beau Falloon have each been rushed back into the Titans' starting team after the club reinstated them to the playing group as they await court proceedings on drugs charges, to which they have each pled not guilty.
On the back of a 40-0 thumping by the Panthers, the inclusion of two current Origin stars and the club's reigning player of the year could not have come at a better time for coach Neil Henry and how these players respond – both physically and mentally – after three weeks away from the team will be telling.
Newcastle's mantra over the first two weeks of the season has been 'more will than skill' and it has carried them to the top rungs of the ladder with gritty wins over the Warriors and Cowboys.
Trailing 14-0 against a desperate Cowboys team last Saturday there appeared no way back for the Knights but on the back of some enterprising play by the backs and uncompromising defence by the forwards they clawed their way to a 16-14 win.
The Knights have already proven in a fortnight that they are a resilient group full of character; as the Titans approach a full-strength team for the first time this year it's time to get a more accurate gauge of what they are truly made of.
In addition to the returns of Bird, Taylor and Falloon, prop Matthew White is back from a hamstring injury on the bench while Josh Hoffman will start at fullback for the first time for his new club.
The only change to the Knights is the inclusion of the crafty Tyler Randell on a five-man bench that also includes Chris Houston, David Fa'alogo, Jack Stockwell and Sione Mata'utia.
Watch Out Titans: The physical intimidation may come in the middle but it's the Knights' willingness to shift the ball to their edges that is causing opposition defences the greatest problem over the opening two rounds. In Dane Gagai and Joseph Leilua the Knights have two of the top 15 metre-eaters in the competition while Sione Mata'utia and Akuila Uate are both averaging in excess of 130 metres per game in running metres. If the Titans' edge defence is not water-tight they will find themselves going backwards at a rate of knots for long periods of the game.
Watch Out Knights: The first and only time prior to last Saturday that the Titans were kept to zero was in Round 25 last year against the Warriors when they were hammered 42-0; a week later they defeated eventual runners-up the Bulldogs 19-18 at home. It's a tenuous positive to draw from a 40-0 thumping by the Panthers last weekend but as one of only four teams to start the season 0-2 the Titans need to bounce back and bounce back hard.
Key Match-Up: Greg Bird v Jeremy Smith. If there were two modern-day forwards who could be transported back to the 1970s and hold their own it would be the two locks opposing each other on Sunday. Their no frills, no nonsense approach to the game endears them to their teammates and brings the blood of opposition fans to the boil. Stats don't do these men justice as it is the intensity with which they make their runs and execute their tackles that has the greatest impact on how a much plays out. You've got to win the middle to win the game and these two will be at each other all game to ensure it is their team that is victorious.
History: Played 12; Titans 5; Knights 7.
The Titans kept their faint finals hopes alive with a 22-8 win over the Knights in Newcastle in Round 19 last year amid emotional scenes for Rise For Alex Round with injured Newcastle forward Alex McKinnon in attendance as a special guest. In five previous visits to face the Titans on the Gold Coast the Knights have returned home victorious on three occasions, including the past two meetings at Robina.
What Are The Odds: Titans ($2.45) v Knights ($1.55)
The Knights opened as $1.98 outsiders but back-to-back wins to start the season has seen them shorten into $1.55 favourites against a Titans side that's yet to register a victory. The money is running 9 to 1 in favour of the Knights with Sportsbet and nearly all of the bets at the line have been with Newcastle giving away a 5.5 points start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Did You Know? The Knights' entry into the competition in 1988 coincided with that of the Gold Coast Giants and it was the Giants who recorded the first away win in their history in a 9-0 slugfest at Newcastle International Sports Centre. The Giants had not yet played before a crowd the size of the 15,020 who turned up that day with a Ben Gonzales try the only four-pointer of the match. By season's end, the Knights had finished one point ahead of the Giants on the competition ladder.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 6.30pm (AEDT).
Match Officials: Referee: Adam Devcich; Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Brett Suttor; Video Referees: Gavin Badger and Ben Galea.
The Way We See It: The Knights have shown a ton of character to register two first-up wins over the Warriors and Cowboys but after a brave effort in Round 1 the Titans were well off the pace last weekend. This will be a rough and tumble affair in the middle but the class of Newcastle's backs has the potential to make it another long evening for Gold Coast fans. Knights by 16.
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