Round 19: Knights v Wests Tigers preview
Coming into the Origin period, Newcastle looked almost unstoppable. They'd lost five of their first six matches this season before swinging everything around dramatically, winning six straight between Rounds 7 and 13 to find themselves somehow in the hunt for a top four berth. The highlight was undoubtedly a 38-12 shellacking of the Roosters on a Friday night in front of their home fans - but it's been largely downhill since then.
The winning streak was snapped prior to Origin II with Melbourne thumping the Knights by thirty points, and since then Newcastle have only been able to overcome Brisbane, whilst falling to lesser sides like the Warriors and Bulldogs - despite the majority of these matches being played at home.
Arguably their worst moment of the season, however, came in the final 25 minutes of last Saturday's clash with the Roosters. The 2018 premiers turned the tables on the Novocastrians, running away with the game late to seal an empahtic 48-10 win and leaving Newcastle's credentials as a top eight side in shreds. They now sit just inside the eight, but have five sides nipping at their heels - one being the Wests Tigers.
In their first season under Michael Maguire, the Wests Tigers haven't changed all that much - drifting in and out of form and seemingly ready to finish outside the eight as per usual. While they're no doubt eager to play September footy for the first time since 2011, their recent form suggests that's no sure thing. The Roosters, Eels and Raiders have beaten them in the last three weeks and the problem now becomes whether they can turn their form around in time to make a run for the vacant final spot in the top eight.
Despite the solid loss, Newcastle will go into the clash unchanged. Wests Tigers welcome back fullback Corey Thompson, which pushes Moses Mbye back to centre, and Michael Chee Kam shifts to second row with Matt Eisenhuth (concussion) on the reserves list. Chris Lawrence is benched with Luke Garner partnering Chee-Kam instead. Oliver Clark starts up front with Alex Twal benched.
Last meeting: Round 21 2018 - Knights 16 Wests Tigers 25
Who to watch: Yeah, it's the fullback for Newcastle. Kalyn Ponga showed flashes of his usual brilliance in the Knights' big loss to the Roosters - his first game back from injury which saw him miss both Origin II and III - but didn't look match fit just yet. He'll be better for the run last week despite the result, and together with Mitchell Pearce will need to produce the class and firepower we know they're capable of. The Knights need it.
Speaking of prodigious talents, Benji Marshall is still weighing up his future. After spending four years away from the club that made him famous, Marshall is still considering whether to play on beyond 2019. Reaching his 300th game just a fortnight ago, coach Michael Maguire believes he can push on into 2020 - and guiding his Wests Tigers to their first finals berth in eight years could be just the tonic. Watch for him to have a blinder if the black, orange and white are to make a run for the eight.
The favourite: The home side Newcastle are better backed here.
My tip: This is a very difficult one to tip. Newcastle should be victorious, but in the last two months they've made a habit of losing games they should be winning, and given how the Tigers performed just a year ago at the same venue it's no sure bet the hosts will get the job done. I'll tip them, but not with much confidence. Knights by 2.