Round 9: Knights v Rabbitohs preview
Pulling off a massive win without Mitchell Pearce last Friday against Manly, the Knights will be hopeful of a big turnout at McDonald Jones Stadium as they look to knock off the Rabbitohs.
Having won just five matches throughout all of 2017, coach Nathan Brown has begun to reap the rewards of a tremendous job in developing young players such as the Saifiti twins and recruiting experienced campaigners including stand-in captain Aidan Guerra who have come from clubs where winning is the norm.
Coming away with only their third ever win at Lottoland last week, Newcastle will revel in the chance to play at home for just the third time this season, where in earlier closely-fought matches against the Sea Eagles and Broncos, huge crowds of over 20,000 supporters have created an infectious atmosphere for the Knights to thrive off of, while ensuring visiting teams endure a hostile stay in the Hunter.
Sitting inside the top eight after the first two months of the season for the first time since 2013, Bulldogs-bound halfback Jack Cogger will be looking to achieve a personal goal on Friday night by winning his first game in the NRL in front of home fans. Having lost the first eight matches of his career in first grade, including a forgettable 62-0 thrashing at the hands of Cronulla on debut, the past fortnight has seen the 20-year-old playmaker rise to the occasion afforded to him at the expense of Brock Lamb. But despite wins in Tamworth and Manly, the chance to celebrate his first win in Newcastle should provide the promising playmaker with plenty of incentive to come away with two competition points.
Sticking strong with the same 17 players that got the job done against the Sea Eagles, the Knights will be reluctant to change up a winning formula. However, if late changes are made an hour before kick-off expect former Queensland prop Jacob Lillyman to be the likely candidate to force his way into the side.
Looking as though they would cruise to victory last Thursday against the Broncos, a fast-finish wasn't enough to save the Rabbitohs, as they were unable to overcome the suspension of Sam Burgess.
Making a promising start to the year with a 50% record under rookie coach Anthony Seibold, the Rabbitohs have been willing to throw the ball around in 2018 and greatly benefitted from the return of iconic captain Greg Inglis. Missing all but one game last season, the proud Indigenous outside back looks to be hitting his straps in the run-up to State of Origin with his trademark Goanna post-try celebration making a comeback in a sign the Blues will be terrified at the prospect of.
Holding a strong record over Newcastle in recent years, South Sydney have racked up the points in a number of recent meetings against the Knights, with the Bunnies winning the past eight matches by a total score of 285 - 90. While their historical record in games played in Newcastle doesn't appear to provide a great deal of confidence with just five wins at the venue since 1988, a number of current Rabbitohs have come away with victories in the past two contest played at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Currently in seventh position on the NRL ladder but with a far better for-and-against than the Knights, Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds will be eager to make a statement on Friday after copping plenty of criticism in the immediate aftermath of last week. Targeted by former Newcastle players Willie Mason and Andrew Johns for his defence, Big Willie didn't mince words in expressing his displeasure at the South Sydney playmaker's tackling ability, claiming Reynolds was unwilling to put his body on the line to prevent opponents from scoring. Having played for the Blues in the past and with questions remaining over who Brad Fittler will pick for the opening Origin in just over a month, expect the Rabbitohs halfback to step up against Newcastle to silence his critics.
Having averaged just under a try a game since joining from the Bulldogs last season, winger Richie Kennar has been ruled out for an extended period in a move that opens the door for Campbell Graham to feature in the backline for the first time this season. Otherwise unchanged from the team that went down to the Broncos, look for Dane Gagai to receive a strong reaction from the Newcastle-partisan crowd in his first game back in the Hunter after penning a rich deal with Souths for four seasons.
- The last time Newcastle defeated South Sydney was Round 26, 2011.
- The Knights biggest ever win in the NRL was against the Rabbitohs - 60-0 in Round 23, 1999.
- Winning just 4 of the first 26 matches played against Newcastle, South Sydney have managed to narrow the overall record which stands at 25 wins to the Knights from 40 matches played.
Personal duel: Lachlan Fitzgibbon v Angus Crichton
Handed his NRL start by Danny Buderus towards the end of 2015, Fitzgibbon initially struggled to find his feet in the NRL, but after working hard in reserve grade he made the most of his chance offered midway through last season. Crossing for 9 tries in his past 13 games for the Knights, the South Newcastle Lions junior has more than justified his place in the starting side under Nathan Brown, with the experience of premiership winning second rowers Jamie Buhrer, Aidan Guerra and Chris Heighington providing the 24-year-old with plenty of confidence in working on his defensive decision-making.
Set to join archrivals the Sydney Roosters in 2019, Rabbitohs edge forward Angus Crichton has caught the eye of plenty of admirers with his strong line running, along with the shock decision to amputate an injury-riddled finger. Showing no signs of discomfort based on his performances so far this season, the 22-year-old hasn't found the try line quite as often as expected over the early rounds, but in forming an ever-improving combination alongside former Newcastle star Dane Gagai, it should only be a matter of when the tries start flowing.
Set to oppose each other on Friday night, the pair should enjoy a spirited personal battle with the player best equipped at containing the other providing what may well be a crucial role in determining which side finishes ahead on the scoreboard.
The verdict: Having shown their resilience to get the best of a Manly side under fire from all angles, the Knights will be confident of their chances, but should be wary of a Rabbitohs side with a knack for scoring points against them. Despite playing in the often poorly attended Friday 6pm time slot, expect a healthy turnout of Novocastrians eager to take in the renewed sense of hope in their side after a lean run in recent seasons. Knights by 6.