Round 19: Sydney v Newcastle preview
Knights look to keep finals dream alive against inconsistent Roosters
The situation for the Knights in this competition hasn't changed much at all for the last 6 weeks or so, maybe even longer. They sit right on the brink of the top 8, 2 points behind the team in 7th place (the Dragons) and 2 points ahead of the team in 13th place (Cowboys).
They had an opportunity last week to start to differentiate themselves from the pack against the Storm, but they were blown out, losing by over 40 points, becoming what feels like the 10th different team to be unable to compete with Melbourne.
The Roosters on the other hand were able to get away with the two points last week, although the Cowboys pushed them all the way and could've easily got the win for themselves had they made better decisions in some key moments.
It leaves the tricolours in an interesting situation with 6 more games to play, they appear to have definitely locked up a finals spot, but are struggling against teams that are well below them on the ladder, whilst not providing any resistance when they come up against a contender.
It's why the Knights should fancy themselves as having a red-hot chance at causing an upset on Friday evening. They fall into the category of teams well below the Roosters, but at the moment are playing at least the same quality of football as them. There's no reason Newcastle can't play better than the Bulldogs and Cowboys did against the Roosters in the last two weeks respectively, in fact considering their current predicament they're going to have to.
In team news, James Tedesco returns at fullback after not backing up from origin, pushing Joseph Manu back to the centres. Josh Morris has been the one to give way, meaning Billy Smith retains his starting position. Angus Crichton will resume his starting position, pushing Nat Butcher back to the bench, while Taukeiaho returns from injury, pushing Baker out of the 17.
The Knights continue not being able to field their full-strength spine, which is a shame because they looked like a very classy team the one game Ponga, Clifford, Pearce and Brailey were all on the field together against the Cowboys. In more positive news, star front rower Daniel Saifiti returns from injury to partner brother Jacob, while Lachlan Fitzgibbon has been dropped, meaning Barnett shifts to the edge and Connor Watson will start at lock, while Sauaso Sue is on the bench in number 14. David Klemmer will come off the bench, pushing Jack Johns back to the reserves.
Who to watch: It's certainly early doors in his rookie career, but so far young centre Billy Smith is certainly repaying the faith shown to him by Trent Robinson and the Roosters management, who continued to offer him contracts during a horror period of injury in which his 3rd career first grade came 674 days after his 2nd. You wouldn't know it watching him play however, Smith scored a try 4 minutes into his comeback game, while last week he ran for 145 metres (47 post contact) to go with 9 tackle busts, a line break and another try. It was a performance good enough to unseat veteran centre Josh Morris, and if the last two weeks are anything to go by, Smith won't disappoint on Friday evening.
Connor Watson has, in my opinion, been the Knights most consistent player all year. He's shaken off previous injury struggles to play all 17 possible games this season and has been named to start at lock for the 4th time, although Adam O'Brien has been known to make a late switch. For Knights fans sake, let's hope he doesn't, because one thing is clear when watching the Novocastrians play, they are a better team when Connor Watson is on the park. The dynamic ball playing he offers in the lock forward role brings another dimension to the Knights attack, while he can also be relied on to make 40+ tackles if required. Despite his performances, Watson remains unsigned beyond 2021 after being dissatisfied with the offer put forward to him by the Knights, making a strong end to the year a necessity.
The favourite: The Roosters are favoured by 11 and a half points over the Knights in this one.
My tip: While the Roosters haven't been at all convincing in recent weeks, they have continued doing enough to get the job done, and while if Mitchell Pearce was playing I'd be giving the Knights a big chance of causing the upset, he isn't, so I'll say Sydney Roosters by 8.