Round 21: Knights v Wests Tigers preview
In a match that loomed as pivotal to determining which outsider would make a late play for the top eight, the events of the previous round have reduced the Round 21 showdown between the Knights and Tigers to a contest lacking meaningful bearing on the competition ladder.
With both sides demonstrating improvement from last year to fend off concerns of finishing bottom of the league - while lacking the mid-season consistency required to qualify for the finals - the prospect of an uninhibited attacking master class or dreary slog appears likely for the dedicated supporters venturing to the Hunter on Friday night.
Producing one of their finest opening 40 minutes in Townsville to give credence to an unlikely finals charge, the ensuing second half capitulation extinguished any hopes the Newcastle Knights had of progressing beyond the regular season.
Exposing the Cowboys inept defence and completion rate to lead 18-6 at the change of ends, what should have been a dominant win ended in disbelief for the reigning wooden spoon holders after failing to score a point in the second half, allowing the home side to snatch victory from a seemingly unrecoverable position.
While in the wash-up to the Townsville affair rugby league's perpetually outraged leapt online at the opportunity to reduce 80 minutes of play to a single refereeing decision, the harsh reality for Newcastle players and supporters to come to terms with can be identified in inconsistency throughout matches that has plagued the Knights over the course of 2018.
Showing undeniable advancements from the form shown during coach Nathan Brown's first two seasons at the helm, the new territory of playing out the final five weeks with little purpose should serve as an gauge for next season as to whether the NRL's most-improved are willing to display greater ambition in attack or dejectedly embrace a defeatist attitude in the knowledge that compared with previous years 2018 can be considered a unequivocal success.
Enjoying a strong run of form over the Tigers during a particularly lean period with four wins from the past six clashes, the Knights will be looking to commemorate multiple player achievements with Shaun Kenny-Dowall (250 NRL games), Herman Ese'ese (50 NRL games) and Mitchell Barnett (50 games for Newcastle) all bringing up personal milestones on Friday night.
In response to the team beaten 20-18 at the death last week, departing playmaker Jack Cogger drops out of the squad with Connor Watson returning to the five-eighth role, Cory Denniss replaces fan favourite Nathan Ross in the centres, while former Tigers prop JJ Felise will make his club debut off the bench in place of Jacob Lillyman.
After claiming two massive scalps against the Dragons and Rabbitohs in consecutive weeks, what should have been a fait accompli against the 14th placed Bulldogs ended in disaster for the Wests Tigers.
Appearing to be the dark horse candidate destined to fulfil the late season run embodied by Parramatta and Canberra in recent years, a self-described ‘flat' performance saw the joint venture struggle to fire an attacking shot in the 16-4 loss, effectively leaving Ivan Cleary's side to ponder what could have been in 2018.
Needing to make up two wins to draw level with the 8th placed Warriors, a lack of time looks set to cruel the Tigers' aspirations of returning to the play-offs for the first time since 2011, barring their longest winning run since Tim Sheen's tenure and a colossal collapse on the behalf of a current top eight side.
Resolving the basket case of protracted contract negotiations and underperforming players inherited from previous managements, Ivan Cleary has taken great strides with the Western Suburbs - Balmain merger in his limited time with the club. However, with a number of players unlikely to feature beyond this season, the way in which the former Warriors and Panthers coach uses the remaining five weeks to develop young players or persist with aging club legends should serve as an indicator of where the Tigers have their sights set in preparation for 2019.
Resisting the urge to make large-scale changes with former Newcastle forward Robbie Rochow replacing Chris McQueen in an otherwise unchanged squad, Friday night will serve as a milestone match for much-improved utility forward Michael Chee-Kam as he brings up his 50th game in the NRL.
Last meeting: Round 7 2018 - Wests Tigers 20 Knights 22
- Of the 25 matches played between the two sides since 2000, the Knights hold a slender lead over the Tigers with 13 wins from 25 clashes. In matches played in Newcastle the home side holds a similarly narrow advantage with 8 wins from 14 clashes.
- Of the 17 Newcastle players who finished ahead on the scoreboard in the club's sole victory throughout the 2016 season, only two players who participated in the 18-16 win over the Tigers will take part in Friday's contest.
- The Tigers recorded their largest comeback against the Knights in 2001 after recovering from a 24-0 deficit to shock the eventual premiers. That come-from-behind win is just one of the five instances where the team trailing at halftime went on to win.
Personal Duel - Shaun Kenny-Dowall v Benji Marshall
Enduring periods of turmoil throughout the course of their respective careers, accomplished New Zealand representatives Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Benji Marshall have made the most of their newfound responsibilities as veterans tasked with ushering in the next generation at their clubs.
Set to play his 250th game in first grade after a successful career with the Roosters over the previous decade, Kenny-Dowall has epitomised the Knights during his time in the Hunter with patches of brilliance and inconsistency. Gaining notoriety for making the difficult look easy and the easy look difficult, the 30-year-old will be hopeful of repeating his match-winning heroics when the two sides met in Tamworth earlier this season.
Having starred in the Tigers' lone premiership win as a 20-year-old over a decade ago, the effects of experience and maturation have seen Marshall return in the esteem as a club legend, but as a much wiser player. Demonstrating great poise in his older age with refined intuition for how matches should play out, the adored flick-pass merchant will be out to showcase his vast skillset on Friday night.
With both players capable of magic and misery, the form shown by the two Kiwi veteran should prove telling in whether the Knights or Tigers leave McDonald Jones Stadium with two competition points at the end of 80 minutes.
In what should have been a fiercely contested match-up between two teams desperate to keep the fire burning in pursuit of the finals, the prospect of a high quality game appears less likely given the lacks of stakes at play. While the quality of Friday's match may not stand up as a classic, the willingness for both teams to throw caution to the wind should see the likes of Ponga, Watson, Mbye and Marshall create plenty of moments for the highlights reel. Wests Tigers by 8.