Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown sprung a selection surprise by naming Slade Griffin to start at hooker this Friday night in their season opener against the Manly Sea Eagles at McDonald Jones Stadium, with fellow hooker Danny Levi dropped from the 17.
Connor Watson will partner fellow ex-Rooster Mitchell Pearce in the halves, with Aidan Guerra poised to start in the second-row alongside rising star Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
Expectations in the Hunter are high for the first time in several years as the club looks to erase the memory of three straight wooden spoons with a revamped roster led by major acquisitions Pearce and Kalyn Ponga.
Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett has had to deal with plenty of off-field distractions in the summer months, namely the club's ongoing salary cap investigation and Blake Green's departure to the Warriors.
Matthew Wright has been named by Barrett to play in the centres, with Dylan Walker missing the start of the season. Lachlan Croker will get his chance to shine, playing five-eighth alongside Daly Cherry-Evans in the halves.
New back-row recruit Joel Thompson will also start, demoting Frank Winterstein to the bench. Man mountain Kelepi Tanginoa will also play off the bench.
Key match-up: There are many match-ups here but clearly the key one is the battle of the two halfbacks. Mitchell Pearce has been labelled the Knights' saviour during their rebuilding phase after leaving Bondi for the trip up the M1. The Blues half had an immediate impact at the club, setting up a number of tries in the trial win over Melbourne, while he was not given much to work with against Parramatta due to the team's high error count. Daly Cherry-Evans also has State of Origin experience and guided his team to a finals spot last year. Both men will have much more inexperienced partners alongside them in the five-eighth role this season – Connor Watson for the Knights is slightly more experienced than Lachlan Croker, but DCE also has the Trbojevic brothers to work off.
For Newcastle to win: A lot has been made about the Knights' recruitment in the off-season, and not just Mitchell Pearce. New faces Kalyn Ponga, Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Slade Griffin, Jacob Lillyman, Aidan Guerra and Chris Heighington bring a blend of talent, youth and experience to a side that tried hard throughout 2017 but lacked that killer blow. Playing as a team and reducing errors is vital for the new-look side.
For Manly to win:The Sea Eagles are a team on the way up, after being in a similar position to the Knights a few years ago. The club has been able to keep most of their core players from last year, and little needs to be said about the skill level of Jake and Tom Trbojevic and Cherry-Evans. The fact that the majority of the Manly players have had have had more time playing together than the Knights might just well put them ahead of their opposition at key moments in the game.
Knights Stat Attack: The Knights were very effective running the ball out of dummy half, finishing 2017 with the fourth most dummy-half runs (337, 14 per game) and the fifth most metres from dummy-half runs (3048 m, 127 per game). However, with Melbourne recruit Slade Griffin taking on the No.9 role and Danny Levi dropped from the 17 it will be interesting to see whether this is still a major part of the Knights' game plan.
Sea Eagles Stat Attack: The Sea Eagles scored a total of 99 tries in the 2017 Telstra Premiership at an average of 4.1 per game, but the most frequent source of the try-scoring possessions came off a penalty. So no doubt Newcastle coach Nathan Brown will be stressing the importance of not conceding penalties especially near their own tryline.
And another thing: There is a sense of excitement in Newcastle about the new-look team and with a big crowd of more than 20,000 expected, the adrenaline and hype might just bring the best out of Knights players and shock the Sea Eagles.
Match: Knights v Sea Eagles
Round 1 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium
The prediction: Newcastle by 6.
McDonald Jones Stadium, Friday March 9, 6pm
Head-to-head: Played 48, Sea Eagles 31 wins, Knights 17 wins.
Last five games:
- Round 14, 2017; Manly Sea Eagles def. Newcastle Knights 18-14.
- Round 21, 2016; Manly Sea Eagles def. Newcastle Knights 36-14.
- Round 8, 2016; Manly Sea Eagles def. Newcastle Knights 26-10.
- Round 9, 2015; Manly Sea Eagles def. Newcastle Knights 30-10.
- Round 10, 2014; Manly Sea Eagles def. Newcastle Knights 15-14.
2017 points per game: Knights 17.8; Manly 22.5.
2017 points conceded per game: Knights 27; Manly 21.4.
Televised: Live on Fox League
Knights: 1 Kalyn Ponga, 2 Shaun Kenny-Dowall, 3 Sione Mata'utia, 4 Tautau Moga, 5 Nathan Ross, 6 Connor Watson, 7 Mitchell Pearce (c), 8 Herman Ese'ese, 9 Slade Griffin, 10 Jacob Lillyman, 11 Lachlan Fitzgibbon, 12 Aidan Guerra, 13 Mitchell Barnett
Interchange: 14 Brock Lamb, 15 Chris Heighington, 16 Jamie Buhrer (c), 17 Daniel Saifiti
Reserves: 18 Ken Sio, 19 Jacob Saifiti, 20 Daniel Levi, 21 Luke Yates
Sea Eagles: 1 Tom Trbojevic, 2 Jorge Taufua, 3 Matthew Wright, 4 Brian Kelly, 5 Akuila Uate, 6 Lachlan Croker, 7 Daly Cherry-Evans (c), 8 Addin Fonua-Blake, 9 Apisai Koroisau, 10 Martin Taupau, 11 Joel Thompson, 12 Curtis Sironen, 13 Jake Trbojevic
Interchange: 14 Lewis Brown, 15 Shaun Lane, 16 Frank Winterstein, 17 Kelepi Tanginoa
Reserves: 18 Bradley Parker, 19 Jackson Hastings, 20 Jack Gosiewski, 21 Lloyd Perrett
Match officials: Main referee: Adam Gee, Assistant referee: Gavin Reynolds, Touch judges: Kasey Badger, Phil Henderson.