Schick Hydro Preview: Sydney Roosters v Newcastle Knights
It's hard to imagine that these two sides played off in a preliminary final in 2013. Fast forward three years and Saturday evening's Round 9 Telstra Premiership showdown will be a battle to avoid bottom place on the ladder.
Much has been made of the Roosters' woes this year, but in a rare bit of good news, it appears they're returning to full strength with the triumvirate of Mitchell Pearce, Boyd Cordner and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves set to run out for the first time together in 2016.
With just one win from their opening eight matches, all hopes of a fourth straight minor premiership are long gone, but the 2013 premiers know that they are still a mathematical chance of making the top eight if they can win 11 of their next 16 games.
That will have to start against a Newcastle side that sits one point clear of the Tricolours in 15th place. The youthful Novocastrians have more than held their own in recent weeks (apart from the crushing loss against Brisbane) with tight losses to the Storm and Sea Eagles and a gutsy win over fellow strugglers the Wests Tigers.
There are enough changes amongst both sides this week to make your head spin. The Roosters finally welcome back Pearce and Waerea-Hargreaves, while Isaac Liu is back from suspension. Brendan Elliot and Mitchell Frei drop out of the 17 with Mitchell Aubusson shifting to the centres.
The Knights have lost Jarrod Mullen, Peter Mata'utia and Josh King, with Will Pearsall, Pat Mata'utia and Pauli Pauli taking their places. Nathan Brown has also included Mickey Paea and Jack Stockwell on an extended bench, as well as Brock Lamb – a crafty half who has been plying his trade in the Holden Cup.
Watch out Roosters: No team has made more errors in 2016 than the Roosters. The Tricolours have racked up 87 of the 'coach killers' so far this year, including a whopping 14 on Anzac Day. Shaun Kenny-Dowall (13) and Latrell Mitchell (12) are two of the worst offenders in the competition, while the usually reliable Aidan Guerra (10) isn't far behind.
Watch out Knights: Statistically speaking 2016 hasn't been a great year for the Knights, with the Novocastrians ranking in the bottom two in most major categories. Of most concern has to be metres gained, where the Knights sit 16th with 10,097 metres through eight rounds. Compare that to the Broncos who have run for 2,815 more metres at an average of more than 351m extra per game. They'll have their work cut out for them against a Roosters pack that is nearly back to full strength.
Key match-up: Mitchell Pearce v Trent Hodkinson. The 2015 State of Origin halves look at long odds to line-up for the Blues when the series kicks off on June 1 in Sydney. Pearce is set to play his first game of the season after serving an eight game ban and will be keen to make up for lost time on Saturday. It would be unfair to expect him to be at his best, but don't be surprised to see his teammates lift for their halfback. Hodkinson has had an indifferent start to life as a Knight with four try assists and just one line break through eight rounds. He will need to find his 2014 form quickly, especially with halves partner Jarrod Mullen (hamstring) set to be sidelined for an extended period of time.
The history: Played 47; Roosters 26, Knights 19, Drawn 2. The Roosters have won five of the past six, including four straight in Sydney. The Tricolours piled on 38 points in a comfortable 16-point win in their only meeting last year, but the only tryscorer from that game set to play on Saturday evening is Kane Evans.
What are the odds: Sportsbet customers have been very patient with the Roosters and once again they're the best backed side in this one. In fact, 85 per cent of all money invested on the head to head market has gone on the underperforming Roosters and they've been backed to win by a big margin too. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assistant referee: David Munro. Sideline officials: Clayton Sharpe and David Ryan.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 5pm.
The way we see it: Saturday night will see the Roosters welcome back some of their much needed cavalry, but don't expect the return of key personnel to turn them into premiership contenders overnight. Trent Robinson's men will win – and should win well – and with three of their next four games against teams currently sitting outside the top eight, Saturday's clash could be the catalyst needed to spark a greater back-from-the-dead comeback than Jon Snow. Spoiler alerts? Roosters by 18.