Round 7: Wests Tigers v Knights preview
Tigers head North for first premiership match in Tamworth
With City v Country falling by the wayside of a heavily congested playing schedule, the Tigers have taken on part of the responsibility for evangelising rugby league in regional NSW by shifting their home match to Tamworth for the first ever NRL fixture. With Penrith leading the way for regional matches in recent times, the Tigers will be hoping their decision to forego playing in Western Sydney produces beneficial results in the Country and on the scoreboard as they look to consolidate their place in the top four. Coming into Saturday's clash following a remarkable showing against Manly to record only their second ever win on the Northern Beaches, the Tigers will be buoyant about their chances as they look to celebrate Kevin Naiqama's 100th appearance in the NRL with a win. Holding a 50% record over their opponents since 2014, coach Ivan Cleary has received mixed news on the selection front with co-captain Elijah Taylor returning for his first match since Round 2, while after a long-awaited debut last week, star signing Josh Reynolds is set for another moderate stint on the sidelines. As a result of the reshuffle, Pita Godinet returns to the first grade squad as an interchange utility, while the inclusion of Taylor should offset the absence of Chris Lawrence who is out with a strained hamstring.
After producing a stirring effort over the Broncos a fortnight ago, Newcastle endured a humbling defeat at the hands of Melbourne last Friday in a contest that saw the Knights thoroughly outclassed. Conceding three tries inside 15 minutes, an even share of possession saw the Novocastrians work their way back into the contest only for the final result to bare resemblance to the turmoil of recent years. Hitting the road once again, coach Nathan Brown will be optimistic about his side's chances of upsetting the Tigers and making amends for a disastrous showing against the Wests-Balmain merger last July. Delivering arguably the most inept performance produced by the club during Nathan Brown's tenure in a match infamously dubbed the ‘Spoon Bowl', the humiliation of last season should still linger throughout the playing ranks, despite a high turnover of talent from the squad that participated in the 33-12 debacle at McDonald Jones Stadium. Bolstered by the return of Mitchell Barnett from suspension, a bold selection move sees Canterbury-bound playmaker Jack Cogger come into the halves in place of Brock Lamb, while prop Daniel Saifiti has worn the cost of a disappointing showing last week by being relegated to the extended bench in what was set to be his 50th game for the club, with twin brother Jacob remaining in the named 17 on the bench alongside co-captain Jamie Buhrer who will play his 150th match in the NRL.
Last meeting: Round 17 2017 - Knights 12 Wests Tigers 33
Who to watch: Coming into Saturday's clash following the finest individual performance of his career, halfback Luke Brooks will be looking to replicate his effort at Lottoland in order to solidify the Tigers place in the top four, while furthering his own aspirations of playing representative football. At 23 years of age and rapidly approaching 100 appearances in the NRL, the talent that was viewed comparably to the Eighth Immortal as a teenager is beginning to blossom for the former Dally M Rookie with his partnership alongside Benji Marshall complementing the joint venture superbly. With the contract dramas of last season positioning him as the least valued member of the media-appointed ‘Tigers Big Four', Brooks has thrived under the guidance of Ivan Cleary to take command of a side rated as also-rans before a ball had been kicked and turning them into enterprising attackers boasting the best defence in the league. Playing a starring role in the most important position on the field, Brooks will relish his personal confrontation against Mitchell Pearce to gauge where he ranks among the competitions elite playmakers having already claimed the scalps of premiership winners Cooper Cronk and Daly Cherry-Evans over the opening six rounds.
While his future may lay in the Blue and White of Canterbury, for now Jack Cogger has an opportunity to establish himself as a regular first grader with Newcastle. Coming into the NRL side for the first time this season at the expense of Brock Lamb, the 20-year-old playmaker will be hoping for an extended stay in the top grade following interrupted stints since debuting two years ago. Having starred as a junior representative, the son of former Western Suburbs veteran Trevor Cogger has shown glimpses of talent when given an opportunity by Nathan Brown, but has largely been saddled with ineffective forward packs brought on by inexperience and exhaustion. Lining up alongside the strongest squad he has ever had the fortune of playing with, Cogger should relish the opportunity to showcase his talents with the primary instruction from the Knights coaching staff to make his tackles and be willing to take on the line. Penning a two-year deal with the Bulldogs starting next year, Cogger will be eager to learn all that he can playing alongside Mitchell Pearce to ensure that when he does assume the role of starting halfback next year he has the skills needed to turn his talent into success.
The favourite: Entrenched inside the top four following the strongest start to a season in the clubs' history, the Wests Tigers have been installed as deserved favourites to extend their winning ways.
My tip: With both sides experiencing a huge contrast in performance last week, the safe assumption would suggest the Tigers should have little trouble in accounting for the Knights. However, while the final score may reflect poorly on Newcastle's performance in Melbourne, the manner in which the Knights managed to bounce back from the initial onslaught should give Nathan Brown plenty of confidence about his side's capacity to come away with an upset, as long as they can establish a forward-driven platform during the opening stages of the match. Knights by 6.