Round 15: Newcastle v Warriors preview
Desperation days as the cavalry arrives for Newcastle
Sitting outside the top eight with five wins apiece, the respective teams will be desperate to remain in finals contention after beginning the year with two wins from their opening three matches.
Falling from 4th to 14th over the past three months, the Newcastle Knights will be banking on the return of several established stars to snap a run of dispiriting performances.
Welcoming back Mitchell Pearce (bicep), Kalyn Ponga (groin), Hymel Hunt (hamstring) and David Klemmer (suspension), coach Adam O'Brien will be expecting a much-improved showing after an underwhelming 24-10 fade out against the Rabbitohs last Saturday.
Putting together a measly three wins since snatching a late victory against the Warriors back in Round 2, the Knights have been hugely disappointing in 2021; ranking 15th in attack and equal 11th in defence.
Coming into 2021 with a healthy level of optimism and a rejuvenated roster, the New Zealand Warriors have struggled to live up to expectations.
Slumping to 11th on the ladder in the wake of a morale sapping 42-16 defeat at the hands of the Storm last Sunday, the NRL nomads will be out to atone in a contest carrying plenty of feeling for coach Nathan Brown.
Returning to Newcastle for the first time since departing prior to the end of the 2019 season, Brown will be hoping his side can improve upon a 42 per cent success rate from 19 visits to McDonald Jones Stadium.
Fielding a revamped spine with Chanel Harris-Tavita (pectoral) and Wayde Egan (concussion) unavailable, Sean O'Sullivan and Jazz Tevaga will start at halfback and hooker respectively, while teen prodigy Reece Walsh will return at fullback with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck shifting to the wing.
Who to watch: Making a much-needed return from a pectoral injury sustained on Easter Sunday, Mitchell Pearce will need to make an immediate impression if the Knights hope to down the Warriors twice in a season for the first time since 2003. Beginning the year optimistically only to sustain the same injury that sidelined him for ten weeks back in 2018, the 32-year-old halfback will be sure to offer a calming influence on the side's attack which has struggled in his absence. Set to line up alongside mid-season acquisition Jake Clifford for the first time, look for Pearce to take the reins and allow the former Cowboy to play to his instincts.
Earning rave reviews that border on irresponsible given his standing as a teenager, Reece Walsh will be looking to make up for lost time after serving a one-match suspension. Heralded as the next big thing after an eye-catching introduction to first grade, the 18-year-old has been touted as a possible Origin bolter after six matches in the top grade. While his club coach has been swift in erring Queensland against selecting Walsh, the teenage sensation may force the Maroons to bet the house with a strong performance opposing Kalyn Ponga.
My tip: If the Knights have any hope of remaining in touch with the top eight (or avoiding the prospect of a fourth wooden spoon in seven years), they should get the job done at home. Newcaste by 6.