Newcastle Knights v Melbourne Storm
McDonald Jones Stadium – Sunday, 2.00pm
With the benefit of hindsight the Newcastle Knights could have come away with two competition points against the Sydney Roosters. Over the course of last week’s 80-minute performance, countless individual moments contributed to the whole and as a result of inexperience and feats of brilliance on the Roosters’ behalf, the end result didn’t fall in favour of the home team.
While the disappointments of finishing on the wrong side of an 18-16 scoreline compounded by the season-ending injury sustained by Jamie Buhrer are less than hoped for by Novocastrians, the determination to fight until the final whistle along with tremendous goal line defence should give supporters and coach Nathan Brown plenty of confidence that the structures in place have the Knights positioned to make a genuine play for the finals over the remainder of 2018.
Holding an unappealing record against Melbourne in recent times after dominating against the Victorian outfit during Andrew Johns’ tenure, the challenge of taking on the defining team of the NRL era has seen the Knights perform gallantly, albeit with few victorious results. Pulling off a club defining win in 2014 against the Storm in one of the final highlights experienced prior to the Nathan Brown rebuild, the ever-improving Knights will have their sights set on a major scalp on Sunday afternoon as they look to edge closer to the top eight.
Limited by a growing injury toll that includes Mitchell Pearce, Jamie Buhrer, Tautau Moga, Daniel Saifti, Jacob Saifiti and Nathan Ross, the absence of established talent from the side’s best possible squad has undoubtedly contributed to recent results. Taking a pragmatic approach to the club’s injury misfortune, Nathan Brown has named Luke Yates on the bench in an otherwise unchanged line up, however young second rower Sam Stone could be in line for his first appearance of 2018 after being selected as part of the extended squad.
Sitting in fifth position with a strong for-and-against record to boot, the Melbourne Storm haven’t been able to replicate the feats of brilliance that saw them claim the 2017 premiership in convincing fashion, but despite their standing amongst the ever-changing NRL hierarchy, the class of a Craig Bellamy coached side cannot be underestimated.
Producing a brilliant performance to outscore Brisbane 30-4 in the final 60 minutes after sustaining a ten-point deficit during the first quarter of play, the Storm showed incredible poise and class to bounce back from an unconvincing previous month of football that included two heavy defeats.
Eyeing off their sixth consecutive win over Newcastle since former Melbourne consultant Nathan Brown took on the Knights’ head coaching role, the Storm will be out to post 40 points for the fourth straight time following convincing wins against the Hunter-based outfit over the past year.
Boosted by the returns of superstar fullback Billy Slater and volatile centre Curtis Scott from injury and suspension respectively, the duo’s recovery has been somewhat dampened following news that Jesse Bromwich will miss the next month with a torn hamstring. Sunday’s clash will mark a special occasion for recent New South Wales debutant Josh Addo-Carr as he brings up 50 appearances in the NRL.
- Of the 39 matches played since 1998, Melbourne has claimed victory on 24 occasions, including the past five contests against Newcastle.
- Newcastle has won 3 of the 16 clashes against Melbourne played in the 2010s; of the five matches played at McDonald Jones Stadium during that time, the Knights hold a 20% success rate.
- Since Andrew Johns’ retirement, the Knights have scored more than 30 points against the Storm once in all matches played.
Personal Duel – Slade Griffin v Cameron Smith
Having battled throughout his career with serious injury and a Cameron Smith-shaped barrier in his preferred position, the form shown by Newcastle hooker Slade Griffin in 2018 has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations of the premiership winning utility. Expected to play second fiddle to incumbent New Zealand rake Danny Levi after joining from Melbourne over the off-season, the 27-year-old has made the Knights number nine jersey his own with a series of inspired efforts including arguably the tackle of the season to prevent Isaac Liu from scoring last Saturday night. Facing off against his former mentor, look for Griffin to relish the opportunity to prove his class as a starting player, while potentially earning a debut for the Kiwis in the upcoming Denver test match against England.
With no superlatives left to bestow upon Cameron Smith given the feats he has achieved over the course of 17 years in first grade, the task of ushering in the next generation of Melbourne Storm playmakers looms as one of the most important of his career. With the era of the Storm’s ‘Big Three’ coming to a close, the unenviable task afforded to Brandon Smith, Jahrome Hughes, Ryley Jacks and maligned halfback Brodie Croft in ensuring Melbourne thrive into the future will be at the forefront of the reigning Dally M medallist mind as his time in the NRL winds to a close. Regarded as arguably the greatest player in rugby league history, the soon to be 35-year-old remains a competitive force in the current league with his experience and game awareness unmatched by any opposing player.
With Slade Griffin in the early stages of his emerging career and Cameron Smith winding down towards immortal status, the impact made by the respective hookers will be decisive in determining whether Newcastle or Melbourne finishes ahead on the scoreboard.
Showing signs of genuine resilience against the Roosters, a win against a quality opponent is not far off for the Knights if they can capitalise on their attacking opportunities. Standing up against the Broncos last Sunday, the Storm will be wary of the threat posed by their opponents, but confident in their ability of outscoring the home side. With both sides struggling to deliver upon their potential in recent weeks, Sunday’s clash could be a key moment in the context of their seasons heading into the bye.