Newcastle Knights v Penrith Panthers
McDonald Jones Stadium – Friday, 6.00pm
After a promising adjustment to life without their injured star halfback, the Knights were dealt a harsh reality check against South Sydney last Friday night.
Beaten to the punch by the Rabbitohs from the opening minutes, a poor performance in the middle and the absence of Mitchell Pearce’s on-field composure overshadowed glimpses of a spirited fight back. While it may seem overly critical to expect a 20-year-old with 11 first grade games to perform to the same standard as a premiership winning playmaker, the choices taken by Jack Cogger and halves partner Connor Watson demonstrated the further development needed in both of their games. Whether kicking directly to the opposition fullback or being collected on the last tackle without enacting a productive attacking option, the issue for the Knights moving forward will be how the side bounces back from adversity during matches to ensure that their flourishing attack isn’t diminished by lacklustre defence.
Coming into Friday’s clash with the Panthers outside the top eight as a result of a poor for-and-against record, the need to start strongly and remain committed in defence will be at forefront of Nathan Brown’s directive to his players.
Holding an underwhelming record against Penrith in recent seasons, Newcastle will be hopeful of building upon a recent trend which has seen the Red and Blue lead at halftime in 10 of the past 12 meetings, while struggling to go on with the job in the second 40 minutes.
In response to last week’s disappointing 36-18 result, a number of changes have been enacted with Brock Lamb replacing Cogger at halfback, while Danny Levi, Luke Yates and Josh King are all set to come into the final side on Friday night at the expense of representative trio Jamie Buhrer, Jacob Lillyman and Jacob Saifiti
Entrenched in the top four following an impressive start to 2018, the toll of constant injuries appears to be catching up with Penrith based on recent performances.
Having sustained injuries in the double digits after just nine matches, an awful first half against North Queensland was somewhat redeemed by a much-improved showing after halftime in Bathurst last Friday. Losing marquee forward Trent Merrin in the warm up, the long-term absence of halfback Nathan Cleary, forwards being used in the backline and experienced campaigners being forced to hang up the boots has resulted in coach Anthony Griffin having to draw upon untried talent to fill the voids created on a seemingly weekly basis.
Conceding two losses from their past three matches, the Panthers have shown plenty of resilience throughout every game played so far this season, with the six-point loss to the Cowboys being their heaviest defeat to date. Retaining a strong ability to threaten across the park, irrespective of who is unavailable, the pain suffered in the short term as a result of so many young players being elevated to the first grade squad may prove beneficial down the track with competition for places bringing out the best in the team’s overall performance.
Enjoying success against the Knights in recent years, the Panthers have often relished the opportunity to flex their attacking muscles against their opponents. Recording six wins from the past seven matches played, the Panthers have scored over 30 points in each of those contests with the average winning margin over Newcastle being 21 points.
With injuries continuing to mount up at Penrith, yet another player is set to make his NRL debut on Friday night. Losing, Moses Leota and Jack Hetherington (suspension), Samoan playmaker Jarome Luai will become the fifth debutant for the Panthers in 2018, while Nick Lui-Toso could also come into the side for his first start in the likely event that Merrin is unavailable.
- The last time Newcastle defeated Penrith was Round 4, 2015. The only current Knights player remaining from that side is Sione Mata’utia.
- Of the 45 matches contested between the two sides, the Knights lead the leger with 23 wins, 19 losses and 3 draws. In matches played in Newcastle, the win-loss record is tied at 11 wins apiece from 22 clashes.
- While the Knights have struggled to win clashes against the Panthers in recent times, they do tend to start well having lead or been level at halftime in 10 of the past 12 meetings.
Personal Duel – Sione Mata’utia v Isaah Yeo
Making their NRL debuts back in 2014, utilities Sione Mata’utia and Isaah Yeo have endured similar, yet different career paths to date.
Declared a special player before he had even turned 18 by Wayne Bennett, Mata’utia enjoyed an unprecedented start to his time in the big leagues with selection for the Kangaroos after just seven matches with the Knights. Struggling to maintain the initial success, the youngest of four NRL siblings came into his own when shifted into the second row midway through 2016 by Nathan Brown with the increased responsibility providing a shining light in an often-struggling side. Moving back to the centres following an impressive recruitment drive, the youngest ever Australian representative enjoyed his best performance of the season – despite the end result – marking Greg Inglis last week, with a try and a hand in several others gaining the praise of his coach.
As the first NRL debutant from the star-studded 2013 NYC premiership team, Yeo has gradually developed a reputation as a hard-working, yet unassuming player. Establishing his place in the forwards throughout 2015/16, a deserved call up for Country saw the Dubbo junior named on the wing for the first time in his professional career two years ago. Penning a long-term deal to remain at Penrith until 2021, the 23-year-old has been a pillar of consistency for Anthony Griffin, with his dependable defence regularly used to cover injuries in the backline. Set to break the 100 game barrier later in the year, the uncertain future of Peter Wallace could see Yeo move into calculations for the club captaincy in the near future.
Facing each other on Friday night, the personal duel between the versatile pair should make for an intriguing contest as the ever-improving attack of Mata’utia and reliable defence of Yeo may well have a significant impact on the end result.
While the Panthers have enjoyed plenty of success in Newcastle in recent years, expect the Knights to start strongly after learning plenty of valuable lessons against the Rabbitohs last week. Should the home side get their start right and consolidate a strong forward-dominated platform, there should be plenty of opportunities for superstar Kalyn Ponga to work his magic.