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Knights v Rabbitohs: Lillyman to start for Saifiti

Last week's comeback win over a desperate Manly showed the Knights can still compete without injured halfback Mitchell Pearce, but it also highlighted how much responsibility is on Kalyn Ponga's 20-year-old shoulders to keep this team's head above water until Pearce returns.

Most footy followers agree that Ponga is going to be a superstar, and if nothing else it'll be interesting to see how he copes with the added workload and pressure of being Newy's primary playmaker. No-one will be surprised if he handles himself like a veteran.

The Rabbitohs are probably still kicking themselves that they dropped their guard in the second half of last week's 24-20 home loss to Brisbane. The Bunnies should know the competition is far too close to get ahead of yourself and presumably learned a valuable lesson.

We'll find out on Friday if the Bunnies' confidence has been shaken. Anything less than a serious 80-minute effort on the Knights' home turf could be disastrous.

Knights v Rabbitohs - Round 9

Newcastle Knights v South Sydney Rabbitohs, 6pm Friday at McDonald Jones Stadium

Key match-up: Teammates at the Knights last year, Nathan Ross and Dane Gagai will line up directly opposite each other in Gagai's first game against his former club. The Ross Dog scored the match-winning try in last week's win over Manly and will be excited about facing Gagai but also no doubt wary of his ability to make something from nothing. By the same token, Gagai knows Ross will be looking for any opportunity to bring the home crowd to its feet.

For the Knights to win: Good as Ponga is, Newy are banking on halfback Jack Cogger to guide them around the park and keep the Bunnies on the back foot with an effective kicking game. The same goes for Connor Watson, though he is more a runner than a kicker and will have to play with his usual high energy to keep the Rabbitohs guessing in defence.

For the Rabbitohs to win: After letting one get away against the Broncos, the Bunnies need to prove a point this week. They don't have to alter the game plan from last week, but they certainly need to do a better job of sticking with it. This is a game Souths should win but they won't if they rest on their laurels in the second half again and just expect the opposition to fold.

Knights stat attack: The Knights are seeking a third straight home win for the first time in three years. Last week’s comeback victory over Manly means Newcastle have now equalled their total win tally (5) for 2017.

Rabbitohs stat attack: The Bunnies have had the Knights' measure in recent years, winning their past eight clashes. Fullback Alex Johnston has a great record against Newcastle, scoring 10 tries in their past five meetings.

And another thing: The Cowboys must wince every time they see Kalyn Ponga break another tackle or set up another try. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but the Cowboys sure look like they could use an injection of youth and fresh talent. They had both in Ponga, but he's now making a name for himself as a future star with the Knights, while the Cowboys look old and tired.

Knights: 1 Kalyn Ponga, 2 Ken Sio, 3 Sione Mata'utia, 4 Nathan Ross, 5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall, 6 Connor Watson, 7 Jack Cogger, 8 Herman Ese'ese, 9 Slade Griffin, 19 Jacob Lillyman, 11 Lachlan Fitzgibbon, 12 Aidan Guerra (c), 13 Mitchell Barnett

Interchange: 10 Daniel Saifiti, 14 Jamie Buhrer (c), 15 Chris Heighington, 17 Jacob Saifiti

The Knights have made a late change with Jacob Lillyman to start ahead of Daniel Saifiti, who has moved to the bench. Luke Yates dropped off the bench an hour before kick-off, while Danny Levi and Josh King were omitted on Thursday.

Rabbitohs: 1 Alex Johnston, 2 Campbell Graham, 3 Greg Inglis (c), 4 Dane Gagai, 5 Robert Jennings, 6 Cody Walker, 7 Adam Reynolds, 8 Thomas Burgess, 9 Damien Cook, 10 George Burgess, 11 John Sutton, 12 Angus Crichton, 13 Cameron Murray

Interchange: 14 Adam Doueihi, 15 Mark Nicholls, 16 Jason Clark, 17 Tevita Tatola

The Rabbitohs are 1-17, with winger Campbell Graham called up for his first NRL game of the season in place of injured winger Richie Kennar. Hymel Hunt and Kyle Turner were cut an hour before kick-off, while Robbie Farah and Braidon Burns were omitted from the squad on Thursday.

Head-to-head: Played 40; Knights 25 wins, Rabbitosh 15 wins
Matches at venue: Played 21; Knights 16 wins, Rabbitohs 5 wins
2017 result: Rabbitohs won 24-18 at McDonald Jones Stadium in round 3
Points per game: Knights 17.3; Rabbitohs 23.5
Points conceded per game: Knights 24.5; Rabbitohs 18.5
Televised: Live on Fox League

Steve Turner's prediction: The Knights are brewing with confidence after grinding out a tough win against the Sea Eagles minus star Mitchell Pearce and showed how much they have developed as a team over the past 12 months. The Rabbitohs are a better side than they showed last weekend and have won the last eight encounters with the Knights. Dane Gagai returns to face his old team and I expect a big game from the representative centre along with his South Sydney teammates. TIP: Rabbitohs by 10

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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