Newcastle Knights v Cronulla Sharks
McDonald Jones Stadium – Sunday, 2.00pm
“To be fair, and not to be too critical, the side we played against today were very inexperienced and there wouldn’t be too many players who played for Newcastle today who would make any other first-grade side, really” – Paul Gallen, 15/5/16.
There have been far worst statements made over the years, but few remain as ingrained in the memories of Novocastrians following Cronulla’s 62-0 annihilation of Newcastle two seasons ago.
In the years following one of the darkest days in the Knights’ history, fortunes have rapidly changed under the guidance of Nathan Brown, yet one job remains unresolved – proving the Sharks and Paul Gallen wrong.
Producing gallant efforts in defeat last season, the addition of numerous seasoned campaigners and imminent Maroons rookie Kalyn Ponga have turned the Knights into a competitive outfit on the cusp of the top eight.
While few members remain from the Newcastle side that bore the brunt of Gallen’s brutal assessment, the likes of Brock Lamb, Danny Levi and the Saifiti twins have been at the forefront of the club’s changing fortunes and will have personal agendas to carry out on Sunday as the Knights look to finish the opening half of 2018 with more wins than the entirety of last season.
Responding to the calamitous finish on the Gold Coast last Saturday, injuries to Lamb and Jacob Saifti have provided Jack Cogger and Jamie Buhrer recalls to the top squad, while former Sharks premiership winner Chris Heighington will come onto the bench in place of Jacob Lillyman.
While it may be unfair to reduce the rivalry between the two sides to one moment, the manner in which Cronulla demonstrated their brutality in discarding Newcastle two years ago is symbolic of how the fortunes of the Sharks and Knights have rapidly changed in the subsequent years.
With each side going on to record a historic result at the end of 2016 – Cronulla’s maiden premiership and Newcastle managing the worst winning record since 1993 – the respective regression and progression experienced can be traced back to how the corresponding fixture two years ago played out.
Encountering the redevelopment all recent premiers have endured to varying degrees, after a slow start to 2018 which had some predicting the Sharks were set for a lean period, the revitalisation brought about by the injection of young talent has allowed coach Shane Flanagan to plan for the succession of Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis, while challenging Chad Townsend and Andrew Fifita to take on increased leadership roles.
Currently in the midst of a five-match winning run, the Sharks find themselves entrenched in the top eight with minimal Origin representation likely. However, in the event a number of players are called upon for state and international duties, much like the injury toll suffered by Penrith, the depth of talent available should instil confidence throughout the playing ranks that whoever is called upon is capable of maintaining a high standard of play.
Boosted by the return of Lewis and NSW hopeful Wade Graham, the full strength Sharks will approach Sunday’s fixture with an air of confidence that could see the early season battlers finish the weekend inside the top four should results fall their way.
- Cronulla have won the past six matches between the two sides by a combined margin of 195 to 74.
- Newcastle holds an overall positive record over their opponents, having won 28 of the 51 matches contested, along with 14 wins from 23 fixtures held at home.
- The distance between the two sides has narrowed dramatically in recent seasons, with the Sharks combined winning margin in 2016 being 94 points, compared with last season’s margin being just 9 points from both matches played.
Personal Duel – Kalyn Ponga v Valentine Holmes
With both players in contention for selection in the Maroons’ squad for the opening State of Origin fixture, Sunday’s outcome could very well determine whether Kevin Walters opts for the try-scoring prowess that served him so well last season or debuting the most-talented rookie of the decade.
While the early raps and occasional glimpses from North Queensland alluded to plenty of promise, based off the way in which Kalyn Ponga has become the focal point of the Knight’s attack, especially in the absence of Mitchell Pearce, there can be no doubts that the money offered to the then teenager 18 months ago is likely to be a pittance of bigger things to come. Among the Dally M leaders despite playing just 20 games in the NRL, the superstar fullback has dazzled opponents with footwork not seen in a young player since the emergence of Benji Marshall, while commanding the dominance of a player well beyond his years in stepping up to demand the ball with the match on the line.
Maligned for his performance at fullback in the season opener, Valentine Holmes has fought his way back in recent weeks with 7 tries from his past 6 games* in a sign that the ridiculous scoring prowess shown at the World Cup remains comparatively potent for his club side. Bagging a hat-trick in the series decider last July, the premiership winner boasts the attraction of goal-kicking if needed, along with the poise to step up and nail a field goal when scores are tied. Enjoying his best NRL strike rate against the Knights with nine tries from six matches – including a four try haul in the 62-0 thrashing of 2016 – Holmes will be eager to continue his love affair in Newcastle on Sunday afternoon.
Irrespective of the result, both players are expected to feature for Queensland over the next two months. However with the Knights and Sharks looking to establish a hold in the top eight, expect the personal duel between the Origin contenders to be pivotal in determining the club victor.
It is becoming laborious to bring up the absence of Mitchell Pearce when discussing the Knights, but it cannot be understated just how significant the premiership winner’s absence is for the home side. Going down in their past three matches as a result of poor composure when placed under pressure, barring a significant adjustment in resolve throughout the Newcastle playing ranks, it’s difficult to imagine anything other than a further Cronulla victory on Sunday afternoon.