Newcastle Knights v St. George Illawarra Dragons
McDonald Jones Stadium – Saturday, 3.00pm
Knights look to play Dragon slayers on Old Boy’s Day
There are many ways to look back on 2018 for the Newcastle Knights as both a ringing endorsement of the long-term strategy implemented by Nathan Brown and a year of what could have been under better circumstances.
Having finished in 16th position over the previous three campaigns, the turnaround in form can be considered undeniable given the nine wins amassed surpass the total number recorded in 2016-17 combined. Yet in spite of the strides made, the heightened expectations that saw the side sit 6th following a 5-3 start should have amounted to more, if not for a number of costly injuries and inconsistency throughout matches.
Rounding out the year with the traditional Old Boy’s Day fixture honouring the individuals who paved the way for the Red and Blue over the previous three decades, the impact of the result is set to have little bearing on the competition ladder with a win maintaining their current standing in 11th position, while the worst case losing scenario could see the side slip as low as 13th should the Titans and Bulldogs pull off last round upsets.
Managing just four wins at McDonald Jones Stadium in 2018, the chance to reward supporters for their unwavering loyalty should serve as sufficient motivation for the home side, along with acting as an opportunity to ensure the Dragons’ season is extended by a week at best following the Red V’s staggering decline culminating in last Sunday’s embarrassing display at Kogarah.
Burdened by injuries to several key figures including Connor Watson and Kalyn Ponga, departing playmaker Jack Cogger will be hoping to record his first win in front of the Newcastle faithful, while Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman will be out to savour the final 80 minutes of their careers before hanging up the boots. In a surprise selection, young hooker Tom Starling is in line to make his first grade debut pending NRL clearance with Lachlan Fitzgibbon rested after failing to make it through last week’s loss to Cronulla due to concussion.
Stunning the NRL with a breathtaking opening to 2018 that saw them lead the competition after 16 rounds, the St. George Illawarra Dragons have struck extreme turbulence a week out from the play-offs with an away elimination final looming as a very real prospect.
Enduring their worst loss at UOW Jubilee Oval after conceding 38 unanswered points against Canterbury last Sunday, the joint venture will be banking on maintaining a dominant record over the Knights that has seen them claim victory in 10 of the past 12 meetings.
Still capable of finishing the regular season inside the top four should results fall their way, the impact of for-and-against will play a major role in determining whether the Dragons receive a guaranteed second chance, host an elimination final or face the unenviable task of fighting for their lives in the hostile environments of Brisbane or Auckland.
Unable to draw upon injured prop Paul Vaughan and unlikely to risk influential playmaker Gareth Widdop given the risk of further damage, the added burden of losing retiring winger Jason Nightingale and exciting centre Euan Aitken has forced coach Paul McGregor to call upon Zac Lomax for just his second match in first grade, while fleet-footed playmaker Jai Field has been named for his utility value on the bench.
- The Dragons have won 15 of 19 clashes played in Newcastle since 1999.
- The Knights haven’t won on Old Boy’s Day since 2014 when they defeated the Dragons 40-10. Overall, the Knights have won 19 of 30 Old Boy’s Day matches.
- Saturday afternoon will be the final opportunity for Jamie Buhrer, Jacob Lillyman, Josh King, Danny Levi and Tom Starling to get over the try line or face the prospect of finishing 2018 on the nudie run.
Players with a Point – Daniel Saifiti v Tariq Sims
Establishing himself as the pick of the rookies to debut during Nathan Brown’s Newcastle tenure, Daniel Saifti will be eager to assert his credentials against a Dragons’ forward pack previously regarded as the best in the league. Surpassing the 50 game barrier earlier in the year, the 22-year-old Fijian international has continued to impress in his third full season in the NRL by taking on board the knowledge of retiring forwards Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman, while garnering praise from the likes of Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler for his on-field efforts. Destined for higher honours according to the 8th Immortal and current NSW coach, the young front rower will be out to make a statement in front of the Knights’ Old Boys to prove that he has what it takes to be the new ‘Chief’ front rower for the club.
After years of injury disruption and unfulfilled early promise, Tariq Sims has enjoyed his best season in the NRL after re-establishing his place as a ferocious edge back rower. Making the most of the starting position vacated by Joel Thompson’s departure to Manly over the off-season, the 28-year-old has frequently terrorised opponents throughout the year, earning a long-awaited NSW debut while posting a personal season record of seven tries in the process. Starring against the Knights back at Easter, the rampaging forward will be looking for a similar effort on Saturday in order to give the Dragons any chance of finishing 2018 inside the top four.
With nothing to lose and the opportunity to add to the Dragons humiliation, look for the Knights to rise to the occasion and finish the year with a sense of optimism for betting things to come in 2019.