The LU Blog: 11-17 January 2021
7 days ago | LeagueUnlimited Media
Two evenly matched New South Wales sides to fight for top eight security.
Both teams come into the halfway mark on the regular season at fifth (Newcastle Knights) and sixth (South Sydney Rabbitohs) on the ladder, looking to gain a further advantage on their promising seasons. Only one point separates Newcastle and South Sydney on the ladder and for team points scored. Since 1998 they've split their 28 matchups at 14 apiece. It's their form where differences are found.
The Rabbitohs have recovered from a 1-3 season start to win four of their last five games. In those four wins South Sydney has kept their opponent to 12 points or less.
With the defence humming, the attack has also improved. In last week's four tries to two win over the Wests Tigers, Dane Gagai scored three of them and Adam Reynolds looked more potent in attack. With Cody Walker, Damien Cook and Latrell Mitchell all key attacking players, Reynolds is often the team's fourth option by default. Reynolds reminded everyone last week he's more than capable of stepping up.
A repeat performance would do wonders for the Rabbitohs as Mitchell is suspended and Campbell Graham is out after being injured by Josh Reynolds' boot. Alex Johnston takes over the fullback duties and Gagai shifts from the wing into the centres. Wayne Bennett has selected 20-year-old winger Jaxson Paulo to make his NRL debut with Corey Allan coming in on the opposite wing.
The Knights for the most part this season have shown signs of being a top-four calibre team, as the difference between their best and worst performances has been small. In the last fortnight they've had arguably their two worst performances in attack against the Parramatta Eels and Manly Sea Eagles. Now Newcastle has dropped out of the top four for the first time this season, and with a Rabbitohs win on Saturday Newcastle will be overtaken by South Sydney on the ladder.
When sides have struggled to attack in 2020, it's been commonplace to see those teams get blown out on the scoreboard. The good news for Knights fans is the team has stayed in all their games right to the end (if you count the Cowboys game where they conceded 26 first half points as an aberration).
Newcastle has a six-day turnaround from last week's loss to address the issues in attack. An injection of returning players could bring the spark they need.
Connor Watson, Mitch Barnett and Sione Mata'utia are set to play from the bench at the expense of Tex Hoy and Brodie Jones. Jacob Saifiti moves up to start in place of his injured brother Daniel Saifiti.
Last meeting: Round 13 2019 - Rabbitohs 12 Knights 20
Who to watch: For James Roberts it looked like he had his best game of the season against the Tigers. With two consecutive long stints at centre, the reshuffled and inexperienced Knights backline could struggle to contain the former New South Wales representative. Last week he produced one try, six tackle breaks and 135 run metres. Braidon Burns is out for the season it's all set for Roberts to be South Sydney's strike centre.
Mitchell Pearce, just voted by NRL players as the best halfback in the NRL at present, will be key to getting the Knights attack flowing. Newcastle's at their best when Pearce and Ponga are combining off the back of their damaging front rowers. Missing Daniel Saifiti will be felt and if the team is forced into less ideal opportunities to attack, it'll take the special skills of Pearce and Ponga to create points. As the captain and their most experienced player, he's got to lead the way.
The favourite: The Rabbitohs at home and with the better form have been given the slight edge.
My tip: If Newcastle can address their clunky performances in attack, it should take them over the top of the Rabbitohs. From what we've seen when both teams have been at their best this season, I think the Knights have played at a higher level. Johnston is expected to play confidently in Mitchell's place at fullback, but it's rare for a gun like Ponga to have three off games in a row. Knights by 8.
1. Alex Johnston 2. Jaxson Paulo 3. James Roberts 4. Dane Gagai 5. Corey Allan 6. Cody Walker 7. Adam Reynolds 8. Tevita Tatola 9. Damien Cook 10. Thomas Burgess 11. Jaydn Su'A 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Cameron Murray 14. Mark Nicholls 15. Hame Sele 16. Bayley Sironen 17. Patrick Mago
1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Enari Tuala 3. Tautau Moga 4. Bradman Best 5. Hymel Hunt 6. Kurt Mann 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. David Klemmer 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Jacob Saifiti 11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 12. Aidan Guerra 13. Herman Ese'ese 14. Connor Watson 15. Mitchell Barnett 16. Pasami Saulo 17. Sione Mata'utia
Referees: Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials: Chris Butler, Todd Smith; Video Referees: Steve Clark, Ben Galea;