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Halves duel in Mudgee to have huge impact on rest of season

Two of the competition's most maligned halfbacks over the past decade go head-to-head in a clash that could dictate how both clubs' seasons pan out.

Newcastle and St George Illawarra have endured different journeys after nine rounds but find themselves in a similar position on the ladder on eight points.

It's funny how the game can work like that. On paper it tells us only a 28 points differential splits them but the other part tells us one side has won three in a row and the other is looking to snap a three-game losing streak.

I'm going to go with the bold statement now that one of these sides has already convinced me they won't challenge the top clubs and reach the finals - St George Illawarra.

It might seem harsh because with all the off-field distractions they've had, the Dragons have done fairly well thus far. But Mary would be disappointed with the last few weeks and I think they're a better side than what they've delivered.

Sadly, we just see this too much from them. They can go in and out of games and that's where they're at. It must be hard for a coach to pinpoint why that happens on a consistent basis.

Dragons v Knights - Round 10

In the long-term I don't think the Dragons will be in the mix this year. I look at the teams above them and they're a bit more dominant – sides like the Storm and Roosters.

They're just that sort of team. I don't think they're premiership contenders. They've got the firepower and a good pack of forwards but they'll lose a few to Origin and that's going to be an important period for them and how they handle it.

Last year they were on the top of the ladder leading into the Origin series but this time around they've had no such luck. That might affect them; it's not a great run in and it's not a great position to be in coming in to this period of the year.

Which brings me to Ben Hunt.

Now, I don't want to be too harsh on him because he gets smacked around a fair bit in the media and a lot of it is over the top. On his day, Ben can be a match-winner but it's rocks and diamonds with him.

He simply has to stand up more in big games. I was always heavy on him at the Broncos with his kicking game. I thought last year he went well but it's a mental thing for him.

At crucial times during games this year he's making errors. He's done that a few times they've been particularly reliant on him with the playmakers they've had out.

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Some players have just got an error in them and at 29 it's probably a bit late for Ben to be able to change it now.

Coming into the Origin series especially, where he'll play for the Maroons, he's simply got to get that stuff out of his game. 

On the flip-side and despite similar positions on the ladder, I see key differences for the Knights to kick on regardless of which way the result swings on Sunday.

The start to the season wasn't great for them. You look at the team they had on paper and everyone expected big things. To their credit they've turned it around in the last few weeks and I put it down to Kalyn Ponga's switch to fullback.

Mary blasts Dragons over second half fade out

That's his position, you want him coming onto the ball. There's now talk Latrell Mitchell might go into six at the Roosters but I just think he can't do that.

You want to have these young men a bit wider with a bit of space to move. You don't want them getting the ball flat-footed and being starved of space.

The Knights also finally have a forward pack that can match it with other sides. If they hold their middle they've got a good backline.

They've got a tough period coming up after the Dragons in Mudgee with clashes against the Roosters, Storm and Rabbitohs. After that it gets easier for them.

This match would be one they'd target to win especially when you look at what's ahead of them. They'll be looking at this as a block and Nathan Brown will be saying we really need this one.

Which brings me to the next halfback in Mitchell Pearce. He's really stood up in the last three weeks after a slow start to the year.

I remember being at Suncorp Stadium and the crowd would be giving it to Pearce during Origin.

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As an ex-player you often can forget you were once on a rugby league field getting those same jibes from people in a crowd.

I've always rated him. I think he's a player everyone has been hard on. When he's on song it's hard to stop him. The difference between his best and worst games isn't much.

Queensland didn't mind sticking it to him for years but he never turned away from competing and always takes a challenge front on.

If you look at the role of a halfback, that's what you want in your team. Whoever can step up on Sunday will go a long way to whether or not their respective side reaches the finals.

Yes, it's only round 10, but neither team will want to drop this one with bigger challenges ahead.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.