Round 17: Knights v Bulldogs preview
The biggest banana peel of Newcastle's season awaits.
Form can be deceiving - coming into this contest, Canterbury are the last-start winners, Newcastle the last-start losers. But in reality, both results are the opposite of what people have come to expect from each side this season.
From a slow start, the Knights have been much of what the pre-season pundits were predicting - serious top eight contenders and at times even peeking into the top four. They've only lost two of their past nine matches, but it's arguable Friday night's clash with the Doggies will test their resolve like no other match this season to date.
Canterbury meanwhile, were impressive without being spectacular against a flailing Cronulla side a fortnight ago, and may have unearthed some exciting new talent in halfback Brandon Wakeham. He didn't blow the world away, but the 'Dogs have struggled for consistent halves options as Kieran Foran's ageing body gives way over the last 18 months and this may well be a solution to their ongoing issues in the spine. Combine that with the arrival of former Panther Dallin Watene Zelezniak to provide stability and quality at the back (and that's not to demean Nick Meaney, either) - and the Bulldogs' prospects of avoiding the spoon have increased dramatically in the space of a few weeks.
Having said all that - this game is key for the Knights and they're really going to need to win this game, and win it well, if they want to be taken seriously as the finals contenders turn for home post-Origin.
For Newcastle, that means Pearce comes straight back in, just 48 hours after what's sure to be a dramatic Origin finale in Sydney. His teammates in Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti, along with Queensland's Tim Glasby, are only listed as reserves. The bulk of last week's side that fell short against the Warriors is retained as a result, with only Lachlan Fitzgibbon (elbow) missing out. Kurt Mann goes back to centre with Mata'utia listed in the back-row.
Canterbury's main change sees Wakeham start in the halves alongside Jack Cogger, with Renouf Toomaga plugging the gap left on the interchange.
Who to watch: The men wearing the number nine jumpers for their respective sides on Friday night have seen limited time in the past month or so - but for very different reasons. Newcastle rake Danny Levi made his return from an ankle injury last week, and tackled his way very nearly to a Knights victory in an otherwise inexperienced side. He'll be hurting from the last-start loss as much as his teammates and will want to regain that winning feeling he enjoyed until injury struck in the Round 11 win over the Roosters
The story isn't as rosy for Michael Lichaa. He's found himself on the outer, starting at hooker just twice this season for the club he moved to in 2015 after Michael Ennis took his place at the Sharks. After a disastrous opening round loss against the Warriors, Lichaa found himself benched the following week in favour of Jeremy Marshall-King, staying there until he was unceremoniously dumped to Canterbury Cup in Round 8. After six games in the Bulldogs' lower grade side, he's earned a reprieve thanks to injury to JMK - and that came in the best possible form, returning to help his club to a 14-12 victory over his former employer.
My tip: Given his niggles had previously prevented him taking part in Origin earlier in 2019, it's tricky to know whether Pearce will take the field just 48 hours after one of the biggest rugby league matches of his career - but it would be folly to think at least one or two of the reserve forwards won't be drafted in, provided they pull up fit. If they do, it's hard to see anything but a Knights victory here. Knights by 8.