Time to look ahead to Sunday's decider! Rob Crosby has a full look at both teams and what to expect ...
24 hours ago
TEAM NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS
COACH Michael Hagan
CAPTAIN Andrew Johns
BACKS For the last few seasons, the Newcastle backline has been the benchmark of the NRL. Andrew Johns returns from another career-threatening injury to lead the Knights in their most important season since their 2001 Premiership. He must stay healthy and with his career nearing its peak (or end if you read some reports), this season presents his best chance to erase the disappointments of 2002 and 2003. Matthew Gidley was the close to the Knights most consistent player last season; his centre-wing combination with the incredibly talented Timana Tahu remains the NRL?s best. Fullback Robbie O?Davis comes back for what will most likely be his final season, and Anthony Quinn is an under-rated winger. Mark Hughes will miss the first few rounds with a bad shoulder and in his absence; Russell Richardson will look to revive his career. Kurt Gidley and Steve Witt will battle all season long for the coveted number six jumper outside Johns, and Gidley?s form from last year will see him start the clear favourite. Rounding out the depth chart is utility Craig Hall, Josh Smith, and George Carmont.
FORWARDS With the world?s best hooker in Danny Buderus the Knights forwards always get good service for making the hard yards. Bookends Josh Perry and Matt Parsons are excellent at getting the team forward and Perry has already represented NSW. Steve Simpson went on the Kangaroo tour last year and Daniel Abraham proved he is a quality player last season as he represented Country Origin; it is a formidable and young second row. Then there is Ben Kennedy who is the Knights most damaging runney, if he is fit when the Finals roll around, he makes the Knights a genuine favourite for the title. Staying fit will be the key for the Knights regular season, they have a host of young forwards for depth but only Adam Woolnough and Clint Newton have proven themselves at the NRL level. Todd Lowrie, Blake Mueller, Andrew Price, Matthew Kennedy, Reegan Tanner, Michael Ennis, and Luke Quigley fill out the depth brigade.
KEY PLAYER JOHNS ? No real surprise here, but Joey faces a tough season in which the people of Newcastle will expect another premiership. Although injury has halted his campaigns the last two seasons, Johns will know two of his prime years have gone to waste since the Knights 2001 victory which will fire his desire to dominate. Will re-affirm his status as the best player in the NRL, can take the Knights to a Minor Premiership and if lady luck smiles on him come Finals time, a third premiership.
ONE TO WATCH WOOLNOUGH ? Injury meant Woolnough started his 2003 season late and when he finally made it on the paddock he didn?t perform like many had expected following his rookie season. Powerfully built and willing to do the hard work, Woolnough is going to be coach Michael Hagan?s go-to guy off the bench in 2004. With Matt Parsons nearing the end of his career, Woolnough is eyeing off the vacant prop birth alongside Perry.
BIGGEST ADVANTAGE One Town Team ? the support the Knights get from the city of Newcastle is outstanding, rarely does a big game played at EnergyAustralia Stadium not top the 20,000-crowd mark. The players also thrive off the support and there is a two-way sense of loyalty exists between the players and the fans. When Josh Perry was in contract talks with Parramatta last season, he turned down their significantly higher offer to stick with the team and town he had played with since his debut. While the players probably get too much attention at times, overall the support of Newcastle is a major plus for team morale.
BIGGEST DISADVANTAGE Speculation over Johns ? Andrew Johns said in a pre-season interview that he would not decide his future until mid-year. While he is clearly entitled to choose the time he makes a decision on 2005 and beyond, the rumours that will swirl around his future will not stop until that decision comes. If the Knights are winning and winning regularly, these rumours will have little weight. However, if the Knights falter early, they will eat away at the Knights. When Brett Kimmorley was flying all over the Eastern seaboard during 2000 searching for a new club right in the middle of Melbourne?s title defence, the club barely looked like tight knit group that won the 1999 crown. The Knights have more history as a unit than that Storm team, but speculation about star players can cloud the focus of teams in a major way.
BOTTOM LINE Had Johns not been injured the past two Finals campaigns, the Knights may be looking at a fourth straight premiership. As good as the Roosters and Panthers have been to win the last two seasons, if Johns was in the lineup the Knights would have been major obstacles to their titles. Season 2004 is no different; with Johns and Ben Kennedy in the lineup Newcastle deserve favoritism for a Top 4 birth and a Grand Final appearance.
2004 STRONGEST LINEUP 1. R O?Davis 2. T Tahu 3. M Gidley 4. M Hughes 5. A Quinn 6. K Gidley 7. A Johns ? 8. J Perry 9. D Buderus 10. M Parsons 11. S Simpson 12. D Abraham 13. B Kennedy Bench 14. A Woolnough 15. L Quigley 16. C Newton 17. A Price
Warrick NICOLSON ========================= Freelance Sports Journalist NICOLSON SPORTS CONSULTANCY Ph: 0402 851 485 Fax: 02 9653 1483 [email protected]