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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Returning from the representative bye six points outside the top eight, the Newcastle Knights will be approaching Saturday night's fixture against the battling Bulldogs as a must-win in the context of their 2018 campaign.
Accruing a mere two competition points since May to slip from well inside the top eight to sitting on the precipice of joining the Eels, Bulldogs, Sea Eagles and Cowboys as also-rans, the task confronting Nathan Brown's side is familiar for a number of current players, albeit on the other side of the equation.
With Newcastle's struggles well-documented over the past two seasons, the difficulties faced by their weekend opponents in terms of salary cap pressures, high-profile players changing clubs mid-season and diminishing results share a great deal of comparison to the self-described recession the Knights faced in 2016.
Needing to capitalise upon the misery faced by the Bulldogs made all the more telling following the departures of Moses Mbye and Aaron Woods, the Knights will be hopeful of establishing a dominant lead early on to reduce the risk of a late rally, as has been the case in a number of recent meetings between the two sides.
Losing try-scoring second rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon until Round 19 after an unsuccessful challenge at the judiciary, Sam Stone comes into the starting side, while Jacob Lillyman has been named on the bench for the final weeks of his NRL career.. Showing plenty of promise since joining from the Roosters over the off-season, versatile playmaker Connor Watson will play his 50th game in first grade after debuting with the tri-colours two years ago.
In a season that began with the promise of returning Canterbury to their heralded status as ‘Dogs of War', the predicament faced by rookie coach Dean Pay has regularly seen the Blue and Whites struggle to find their bark in 2018.
Having produced a succession of gallant losses during the year, the dismal failure of their effort against the Titans magnified by a pathetic crowd attendance and the salary cap imposed departures of marquee players has resulted in the 15th placed Bulldogs facing the unenviable situation of playing out the remaining ten weeks of the season with little hope of improvement.
In the only show of optimism for Canterbury stakeholders, both emotional and financial, the example left by Newcastle having endured a similar rebuild necessitated by high risk, high reward decisions made by previous managements has been shown to reap rewards, if given sufficient time to invest in junior development and a long-term approach towards attaining success.
Whether the new Canterbury board are willing to persevere with at least a further two years of below expectation results in the hopes of returning the club to its former glory remains to be seen, but based off 2018 results that highlight their standing as the worst attacking side in the league, should the Bulldogs roll the dice on a quick fix that backfires the implications will make the current disappointment appear negligible in comparison.
Naming William Hopoate as Moses Mbye's replacement at fullback, the flimsy defence that was exposed against the Gold Coast has seen Dean Pay wield the axe extensively. Naming Lachlan Lewis at five-eighth and Ofahiki Ogden on the bench for their first grade debuts, utility Fa'amanu Brown will play just his third match for the club, while Rhyse Martin has been selected in place of Raymond Faitala-Mariner (broken hand) in the second row.
Last meeting: Round 18 2017 - Bulldogs 20 Knights 18
While the on-field roles played by the respective internationals may vary greatly, the dissatisfaction endured by Newcastle's Danny Levi and Canterbury-Bankstown's Josh Jackson over the first half of the year can be viewed as mutual.
Finishing 2017 as New Zealand's first choice hooker at the World Cup, the ascension of former Melbourne utility Slade Griffin has seen the Wellington-born youngster spend close to half the year in reserve grade, while his minutes in the NRL side when called upon have been significantly reduced much to the 22-year-old's chagrin. Suffering the effects of greater competition for positions, the talented rake will be out to put aside the disappointment of losing his starting role by making his mark on Saturday night with greater game time likely as a result of Griffin's North American venture.
Gaining unanimous approval in taking over the captaincy from James Graham, the 2016 Brad Fittler medallist has retained the competitive edge that saw him thrive upon introduction to first grade, but with wins few and far between at Canterbury, increasing frustrations have grown into Jackson's demeanour following losses. Featuring in two grand finals in his first three years in the NRL, few would question the credentials of the 27-year-old second rower as a representative calibre player, however in assuming greater responsibility within a struggling outfit, the traits that saw Jackson play for New South Wales and Australia have largely been squandered as a result of the Bulldogs' waning confidence and inexperience.
With both players forced to watch on from the sidelines as New Zealand and New South Wales went around over the weekend, the opportunity to vent the disappointment of being overlooked should ensure Levi and Jackson play leading roles in the outcome of Saturday night's result.
If the Knights have any ambitions of making a late surge towards September there are no reasons why they shouldn't emerge victorious on Saturday night. With Canterbury losing their best player and having no hope of featuring in finals football, the result will be determined by the home side's intensity to savage or capitulate against one of the objectively weakest sides in the competition. Knights by 13.
1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Ken Sio 3. Sione Mata'utia 4. Cory Denniss 5. Shaun Kenny-dowall 6. Connor Watson 7. Jack Cogger 8. Herman Ese'ese 9. Slade Griffin 10. Josh King 11. Sam Stone 12. Mitchell Barnett 13. Aidan Guerra 14. Danny Levi 15. Chris Heighington 17. Jacob Lillyman 18. Jamie Buhrer
1. William Hopoate 2. Brett Morris 3. Kerrod Holland 4. Marcelo Montoya 5. Reimis Smith 6. Lachlan Lewis 7. Jeremy Marshall-King 8. Aiden Tolman 9. Michael Lichaa 10. David Klemmer 11. Josh Jackson 12. Rhyse Martin 13. Adam Elliot 14. Fa'amanu Brown 15. Danny Fualalo 16. Ofahiki Ogden 17. Greg Eastwood
Referees: Henry Perenara, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Sideline Officials: Jeff Younis, Liam Nicholls; Video Referees: Luke Patten, Ben Cummins;