New Zealand Warriors v Newcastle Knights
Mt. Smart Stadium – Friday, 6.00pm
Claiming a much-needed win to establish a four-point break from the advances of the ninth placed Wests Tigers, the New Zealand Warriors will be looking to all but confirm a place in the top eight with a win over the Newcastle Knights on Friday night.
Having been embarrassed in an atrocious second half on the Gold Coast a week earlier, the challenge put forth by coach Stephen Kearney proved receptive from the Warriors playing group, as they produced their first win in Wollongong in more than two decades.
Coming under immense scrutiny for their tendency to capitulate over the final third of the regular season in the years following their last grand final appearance, the improvements shown by the Warriors in 2018 should deliver the sought response on Friday night, elevating the club to 28 competition points – the accepted standard required to qualify for their first finals series since 2011.
Within striking distance of claiming a home final in the first week of the play-offs, but yet to completely eliminate the prospect of finishing outside the top eight entirely, the equation confronting the New Zealand outfit should be elementary; but as has been proven over the course of history, the simplest of tasks can often be the most difficult for the Warriors.
With Tohu Harris unavailable once again due to a recurrent knee injury, the side named remains largely unchanged with the exception of Peta Hiku replacing Sam Lisone on the bench, while revered hooker Issac Luke will play his 250th match after joining the club from South Sydney back in 2016.
After enduring three consecutive wooden spoons to become the least successful team of the NRL era, curved expectations of stronger results have come to pass for the Newcastle Knights in 2018.
Well and truly improving their win/loss record to achieve more victories than the previous two campaigns combined, the recruitment of experienced talent and junior development has seen the perennial battlers move firmly away from another 16th placed finish; but in displaying potential of greater things during the opening weeks of the season, club personnel and supporters alike have been left to lament what could have been under more fortuitous circumstances.
Showing spirited resolve last Friday against the Wests Tigers to fight back from an 18-point deficit early in the second half, only to fall short in a 25-16 loss at home, the Knights will be hopeful of defying a woeful record in New Zealand to give supporters optimism of better things to come next year.
With no members of the current playing group recording an away win against the Warriors while representing Newcastle, the challenge of overcoming the trying Auckland conditions will be an additional obstacle for coach Nathan Brown as he contends with the immediate difficulty of fielding the best possible team.
In keeping with the trend of player milestones from last week, Mitchell Pearce is set to make his 250th appearance in the NRL, while 20-year-old prop Pasami Saulo will debut off the bench at the expense of Josh King. Unable to draw upon Connor Watson (groin) and with Pearce (corked thigh) under an injury cloud, the makeup of the halves is unlikely to be resolved until an hour before kick-off, with Jack Cogger, Brock Lamb, Nick Meaney and Kalyn Ponga all viable options for Nathan Brown to pursue.
- The Warriors hold a narrow lead over the Knights in all meetings with 19 wins, 18 losses and a draw. Managing just 2 wins and a draw over their first decade in the competition, the Auckland-based club have gone on to triumph in 17 of the next 24 clashes.
- The Knights have managed one win from their previous 12 visits to New Zealand dating back to 2006.
- Both teams have recorded significant comebacks against the other in matches away from home. In 2005 the Warriors trailed 20-0 just before halftime before snatching a 30-26 victory at the death in Newcastle, while the Knights of 2012 recovered from an 18-point start to win 24-19 in Auckland.
Players with a Point – Gerard Beale v JJ Felise
Among the host of Kiwi internationals signed by the Warriors late last season, Beale’s tenure in New Zealand began in less than optimal circumstances having spent the first third of the year sidelined with a broken leg sustained in the group stage of the World Cup last October. Unable to consolidate a regular position in the backline having been used to fill in for wounded wingers and centres during the representative period, the premiership winning utility will be out to draw upon his big match experience in order to lift the Warriors back into the finals for the first time since 2011.
Making his club debut for Newcastle against his former team last Friday night, Felise will be looking to use his limited time in first grade to secure a new deal for next season. Left to languish in the Western Suburbs ISP team before taking a punt to back himself with no guarantees beyond 2018, the 22-year-old prop showed plenty of promise to leave Nathan Brown hopeful of further improvement with increased game time to come. With Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman announcing their intentions to retire at seasons end, the opportunity to secure a place in the Knights 2019 forward rotation should see the young Queenslander leave nothing in reserve in Auckland.
With the prospect of confirming a place in the finals on offer for the Warriors, the stakes at play should produce the desired result for coach Stephen Kearney. Not to be discounted the much-improved Knights, boasting the unparalleled talents of Kalyn Ponga, will be more than capable of causing an upset should the home side fail to seize upon the opportunity at hand.