Newcastle Knights v Gold Coast Titans
McDonald Jones Stadium – Saturday, 3.00pm
Snapping a horror run against Parramatta to help keep their faint finals hopes alive, the Knights will be eager to back up against the Gold Coast in a contest that should determine which side remains in contention for an unlikely top eight finish.
Slipping from 6th to 12th in the absence of star halfback Mitchell Pearce, the quality of the performance against the Eels may have lacked at times, but having managed a single win from their previous eight matches, the importance of coming away with two competition points will give coach Nathan Brown optimism for a strong finish to 2018.
Sitting three wins outside the top eight on 16 competition points, a run of winnable matches against the Titans, Cowboys and Tigers has the potential to lift the Knights back into contention for the play-offs, but with a daunting month to close out the season featuring away trips to New Zealand, Penrith and Cronulla, the reigning wooden spoon holders will be fully aware of needing to capitalise upon their struggling opponents.
While notable cases such as Parramatta (2006 & 2009), Canberra (2010 & 2012) and North Queensland (2013) serve as testament to prior dominant surges towards September, the Knights will need to produce their strongest finish to a season since the infamous 2005 campaign in which they won six of their last seven matches only to claim the wooden spoon. With seven matches remaining and 28 competition points likely to be the minimum cut-off to feature beyond Round 25, the Knights can afford to drop just one game over the final two months of 2018 based off their current standing.
Regaining the services of hard working second rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon following a stint on the sidelines through suspension, fellow edge forward Mitchell Barnett will celebrate a personal milestone on Saturday afternoon by bringing up 50 games in the NRL. Opting to preserve Kalyn Ponga for another week in order to reduce the risk of further damage, Canterbury-bound fullback Nick Meaney has been retained in the number one jersey, while Nathan Ross returns to the starting side in place of injured centre Sione Mata’utia.
Producing an underwhelming showing against a spare parts Roosters side on Sunday evening, the Titans will be intent upon remaining in contention for the play-offs with a victory against an equally desperate Newcastle outfit.
Squandering a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of an Eastern Suburbs side fielding three debutants and missing a host of representative stars, the 12th placed Titans will need to win their remaining seven matches to feature in the finals – a prospect not impossible but highly unlikely given upcoming home matches against the Warriors, Panthers and Storm.
Capable of posting large scores at their best, the lack of defensive resilience throughout the Gold Coast playing ranks has been a major concern for coach Garth Brennan with the side unable to grind out a defence-oriented victory at any stage this season. Scoring at least five tries in each of their wins in 2018, the Titans preference for attacking football could trouble the Knights as was the case when the two sides clashed earlier this season, but on current form the Titans appear ill-equipped to cause the NRL elite any significant concerns.
Regaining the services of Jai Arrow having opted to rest the Queensland forward given the short turnaround from last Wednesday’s final Origin, fellow forward Keegan Hipgrave has been named to return in the second row after missing the Roosters game through injury.
- Newcastle holds the slightest of leads against the Gold Coast with 10 wins from 19 matches played since 2007. During that time the Knights have posted their highest scores of the season opposing the Titans on three occasions (2011, 15, 17).
- The Titans have won four of the past five meetings against the Knights by a combined margin of 153-86.
- Since 2010 the outcome of matches played in Newcastle between the two teams has gone win-loss; based on this precedent the Titans should prevail having gone down in the Knights drought-breaking win at McDonald Jones Stadium in Round 2, 2017.
Personal Duel – Daniel Saifiti v Ryan James
Neither Daniel Safiti nor Ryan James may be held in the same esteem as some of the elite front rowers in the league, but as proven performers for their respective clubs the showdown between the two props should prove telling on Saturday afternoon.
While the return of Mitchell Pearce was heralded as the reason behind the side’s much-needed win last week, Fijian front rower Daniel Saifiti’s inclusion was similarly monumental in the fulltime result. Running for over 100 metres and chiming in with 29 tackles for good measure, the 22-year-old delivered an imposing performance in his return from a foot injury to provide much-needed aggression for the Knights. In his third season of first grade after being blooded by Nathan Brown against the Titans in the opening round of 2016, Saifiti has shown himself to be the most promising prospect to emerge during the club’s challenging rebuild.
Considered unlucky not to feature in Brad Fittler’s final 17 at any stage during the Blue’s triumphant Origin series, Gold Coast captain Ryan James will be out to lead the Titans to an unlikely top eight finish. As one of the first forwards to graduate through the club’s lower grades, the Indigenous All Stars representative has been a consistent performer for the club having strung together several season uninterrupted by injury. Set to turn 27 a day before Saturday’s clash, James will be out to mark the belated celebration by continuing his strong prowess as one of the most prolific try-scoring props in the league.
With the responsibility of laying an effective forward platform for the outside backs to capitalise upon, the performances of Saifiti and James look set to determine whether Newcastle or the Gold Coast remain in contention for the top eight or merely making up the numbers.
In a contest pitting two equally desperate teams against one another the excuses for poor performances are nil. While it may be highly optimistic to suggest the return of Mitchell Pearce is capable of elevating Newcastle towards a finals run, history shows that leading into Round 19 at least one team every year since 2003 has come from outside the top eight to play finals football. It may be unlikely given the standing the Knights find themselves in, but as the former NSW halfback showed during the opening rounds, his presence is capable of turning narrow losses into crucial wins.