Round 21: Newcastle v Brisbane preview
Knights' friendly road to the finals starts at Brisbane
The Knights on-again off-again season took another twist with last week's surprise victory over the Canberra Raiders.
Still in 10th spot, the win places Adam O'Brien's side level with five teams on 18 points including the seventh and eighth placed Titans and Sharks.
Now with the lowly ranked Broncos in their sights, for Knights fans, the return of Mitchell Pearce alongside the strike of Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best means expectations are running high.
And with a soft draw to round out the season that sees Newcastle tackle the Sharks, Bulldogs, Titans and Broncos in the final four rounds, on paper at least, a repeat of last season's September breakthrough is there for the taking.
This week the Knights chase back-to-back wins for the third time this season, but they'll have to do it without skipper Jayden Brailey. In a surprise selection, O'Brien has chosen to rest the reliable dummy-half, opening the door for Chris Randall to return for just the second time this season.
Not without problems of his own, Kevin Walters is now a strike weapon short. In a major blow for Brisbane, last week's match winner Kotoni Staggs has been ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.
Despite limited touches, Staggs was instrumental in Brisbane's six tries to three rout of the Cowboys. In just his fourth appearance of the season the bustling centre's tries either side of halftime ensured Brisbane never lost control.
Without Brailey, Ponga captains Newcastle for the first time. In addition to juggling Newcastle's poor record against Brisbane where they've won just twice in Queensland since 2010, Ponga's inspiration will also be needed to overcome a tricky four-day turnaround.
For the Broncos, seemingly clear of consecutive wooden spoons, Newcastle' fatigue may just be enough for them to score back-to-back wins for the first time in 2021.
Who to watch: On the cusp of his 20th birthday, Bradman Best is due for a change of luck. Having already missed eight games this season, his dominant first half against the Raiders served as a reminder to the upside in Newcastle's season. In what would've been a bone rattling head-to-head contest, the absence of Staggs now means Brisbane's defenders will have to double team the outside back, freeing up space for his eager teammates.
With the strut of an Olympic sprint champion, it's hard to believe Tyson Gamble is just 14 games into an NRL career that began with the Wests Tigers way back in 2018. As the Broncos begin the climb back to the glory days, Gamble's competitive spirit counts for plenty. Without the finesse of a Pearce or Jake Clifford, look for the Broncos playmaker to square the ledger with physical presence.
The favourite: Having won the past three contests, Newcastle are short odds to extend their run.
My tip: Just as it will take two Saifiti's to stop one Payne Haas, Newcastle should have Brisbane's measure right across the park. With a more reliable kicking game and Ponga's class, there's too much on the line here for Newcastle to slip up. Knights by 6.