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Knights target redemption on Old Boys Day
There are few days in the recent history of the Newcastle Knights that match the depths of May 15, 2016. Conceding 11 tries in a 62-0 thrashing in front of their home supporters, the pain of such humiliation will be the motivating drive for the side as they look to farewell 2017 with a win on Old Boys Day. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the club's maiden premiership, the Knights will be eager to demonstrate the vast improvement made over the past season which has seen the promises made by coach Nathan Brown begin to flourish. While only five players who participated in the devastating loss will take part on Sunday, the improvement made by the wealth of junior talent has been evident for all to see with the likes of the Safiti twins, Danny Levi, Josh King and Lachlan Fitzgibbon becoming regular first graders after overcoming the pain of last season. In the wake of last week's 46-28 loss in Canberra, the Knights will be without the services of their best front rower with Daniel Safiti out injured, in his place twin brother Jacob will make a rare start in 2017, while Tyrone Amey will make his NRL debut after impressing in the lower grades. While a mathematical chance of avoiding a third consecutive wooden spoon is on offer for the home side, the celebration of the club's history and opportunity to produce a win for the ages should leave fans with no doubts over the intentions of the side on Sunday.
In the NRL era no side outside the top four has hoisted the Provan-Summons trophy on Grand Final day; having suffered the heartbreak of losing in the final play last Saturday night, the Sharks sit on the more than likely precipice of finishing outside the top four. Requiring Parramatta to lose and coming away with two points against Newcastle, the Sharks chances of going back-to-back according to the accepted logic appear slim; but having broken through after 50 years to claim their first premiership, Cronulla will have no hesitations defying the odds once again. Capable of finishing as high as fourth or low as seventh, the Sharks will fancy their chances against a Knights side coming off the back of a back-breaking loss in Canberra, while using the occasion to celebrate prop Matt Prior's 200th appearance in the NRL. Suffering a heartbreaking 16-14 loss in the final minutes last week, the visitors will field a similar side with the exception of Jeremy Latimore taking the place of Sam Tagaetese on the bench. Naming Jack Bird on an extended bench, the Brisbane-bound game-breaker could come into the squad in a reshuffle should Wade Graham fail to recover from a calf injury, while the circumstances of the fixture could see players rested pending the outcome of earlier matches. Coming away with five wins over Newcastle in the past five meetings, the Sharks will be out to continue the Knights recent run of losses on Old Boys Day. Previously contesting two Old Boys Day clashes in 1995 and 2005, coach Shane Flanagan will be hoping his side makes amends for their loss 12 years ago, when an Andrew Johns tour de force saw the Knights run out 30-point winners.
Who to watch: In his final appearance for the Knights, departing flyer Dane Gagai will be out to deliver one last starring performance to repay the faith shown by the club after being handed a lifeline under Wayne Bennett five years ago. Cut by then Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin for disciplinary issues, the 26-year-old has become one of the most lethal outside backs during his time in the Hunter, epitomised by his performances for Queensland which will almost certainly see him debut for Australia in the upcoming World Cup. Set to join South Sydney on a long-term contract, Gagai will leave the Knights as one of the finest signings in the clubs 30 year history, having gone from discard to champion.
Over the course of his 17-year career, Cronulla captain Paul Gallen has inflamed a number of sides with his actions on and off the field. Widely regarded as public enemy number one by the state of Queensland in recent times, Novocastrians share a similar dislike for the veteran due to comments made in the wake of the Sharks 62-0 massacre of the Knights last May. Labeling the rookie side with the slur, "There wouldn't be too many players who played for Newcastle today who would make any other first-grade side", the 36-year-old can be sure to face a hostile reception from a Knights side eager to make Gallen eat his words. Renown for his toughness and competitive streak, the Sharks lock will be sure to rise to the challenge posed by the home side and demonstrate what it takes to be the reigning NRL champions.
The favourite: While a record of one win and three losses throughout August will be cause for concern from the visitors, Cronulla's reputation precedes any challenge posed by a Newcastle outfit determined to finish 2017 on a high note.
My tip: Defying their position on the premiership ladder, the Knights will be full of motivation to upset the Sharks; but with the prospect of creating history with consecutive title driving on the visitors, the Sharks should come away with a hard-fought victory. Sharks by 4.
1. Nathan Ross 2. Ken Sio 3. Dane Gagai 4. Peter Mata'utia 5. Shaun Kenny-dowall 6. Jack Cogger 7. Trent Hodkinson 8. Jacob Saifiti 9. Danny Levi 10. Josh King 11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 12. Jamie Buhrer 13. Mitchell Barnett 14. Joe Wardle 15. Tyrone Amey 16. Sam Stone 17. Mickey Paea
1. Valentine Holmes 2. Sosaia Feki 20. Jesse Ramien 4. Ricky Leutele 5. Gerard Beale 6. James Maloney 7. Chad Townsend 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Matt Prior 11. Luke Lewis 3. Kurt Capewell 13. Paul Gallen 14. Jayson Bukuya 15. Chris Heighington 16. Jeremy Latimore 17. James Segeyaro