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2021 NRL Round Six Preview, Knights Vs Sharks

Julian Vella previews the early game on Friday between the Newcastle Knights and the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks. This is what we have to look forward to.

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TEAM NEWS

Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle, Date: Friday, April 16th, Time: 6:00pm AEST

Knights Team

1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Brayden Musgrove
3. Enari Tuala
4. Bradman Best
5. Hymel Hunt
6. Kurt Mann
7. Blake Green
8. David Klemmer
9. Jayden Brailey
10. Daniel Saifiti
11. Tyson Frizell
12. Mitchell Barnett
13. Connor Watson
14. Sauaso Sue
15. Jacob Saifiti
16. Josh King
17. Brodie Jones
18. Simi Sasagi
19. Pasami Saulo
20. Phoenix Crossland
21. Gehamat Shibasaki

Team Changes

IN: Bradman Best, Brayden Murgrove, Jacob Saifiti, Kurt Mann, Phoenix Crossland
OUT: Chris Randall, Starford To’a

Sharks Team

1. Will Kennedy
2. Mawene Hiroti
3. Connor Tracey
4. Jesse Ramien
5. Ronaldo Mulitalo
6. Matt Moylan
7. Chad Townsend
8. Braden Hamlin-Uele
9. Blayke Brailey
10. Aaron Woods
11. Briton Nikora
12. Teig Wilton
13. Toby Rudolf
14. Billy Magoulias
15. Aiden Tolman
16. Jack Williams
17. Siosifa Talakai
18. Braydon Trindall
19. Nene MacDonald
20. Franklin Pele
21. Jenson Taumoepeau

Team Changes

IN: Briton Nikora, Franklin Pene, Jenson Taumoepeau, Nene McDonald, Siosifa Talakai
OUT:
Josh Dugan, Wade Graham

Referee: Matt Cecchin

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Knights

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After a good start to the season with two straight wins, things have quickly descended into a rabble for the Knights, as they’ve gone a three-game losing run. No doubt a mounting injury toll has affected the team and could be seen as an excuse for the losses to the Tigers and Dragons, but the lack of effort and commitment last week against the Titans cannot be excused.

Adam O’Brien said he was proud of his troops after the bruising loss to the Dragons, but even he couldn’t defend his players as they were humiliated 42-16 by the rampant Titans. Their edge defence was passive at best, especially their right side that leaked no less than five tries. O’Brien has made wholesale changes to his right side defence with both Gehamat Shibasaki and Starford To’a dropped, whilst Kurt Mann replaces Connor Watson at five-eighth.

Watson returns to the lock position, although he’s likely to revert to the bench in exchange for Sauaso Sue; he is joined by Jake Saifiti (who returns from suspension). Brayden Musgrove takes the spot of To’a on the wing to make his NRL debut; he is joined by Enari Tuala who moves over from the left centre position, making way for the return of Bradman Best.

Sharks

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It’s been a week of turmoil for the Sharks as the axe finally dropped on third-year coach John Morris, despite guiding the Sharks to consecutive finals appearances whilst having to deal with a number of issues including salary cap penalties, playing away from Shark Park and injuries to key playmakers such as Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan.

Morris was also burdened with the errors made by previous coaches and management regarding inflated contracts to underperforming players such as Andrew Fifita and Josh Dugan, whilst the poor decision to release Josh Morris to the Roosters was compounded a week later when Bronson Xerri was suspended by ASADA. In all it’s remarkable that Morris was able to keep the ship afloat and the team competitive.

With Craig Fitzgibbon officially announced as coach for season 2022 by the club yesterday, Morris decided he would finish up immediately, with assistant coach Josh Hannay to take over for the remainder of the season. With Morris a popular figure amongst his players, these developments are unlikely to inspire the Sharks’ players, who are coming off a disappointing loss to the Roosters. The loss of Dugan and Wade Graham further compounds a long list of worries for the Cronulla side.

PREVIEW

Both teams head into this clash hoping to put a bad week behind them; for the Knights it’s been about licking their wounds after being thrashed by the Titans, whilst the Sharks lost their coach and have had to deal with the media circus that comes with it. They say winning fixes everything, and although that might not be totally true, it certainly helps release the pressure valve, which both of these sides could do with.

Hannay and his side will be trying to put all the drama behind them and try and find that winning formula to overturn the Knights at home. The Sharks showed a couple weeks back against the Cowboys that they’ve got lots of points in them if they can get their game right. Most of those points have been coming from the combination of Chad Townsend and William Kennedy who have combined for no less than nine tries this season. A more astonishing stat is that the much-maligned halfback Townsend has played a part in all of the 19 tries scored by the Sharks this season.

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If the Knights are to slow down the Townsend-Kennedy combination they will need to tighten up their defence all over the park: although the right edge defence was the weakest link for the Knights, there were holes all over the park as they conceded eight tries and missed 30 tackles. O’Brien has continually talked about his side’s main priority being defence, but performances like last weekend show they still have lots of work to do in that department.

In attack the Knights showed enough last week to show they can score points even without halfback Mitchell Pearce; the return of marquee-man Kalyn Ponga certainly helps as he took off where he left last season with an impressive return from a shoulder reconstruction. Ponga has the ability to attract the attention of multiple defenders, which in turn makes more space for those around him, expect the Knights to attack down Ponga’s favoured left side of the field allowing him to link up with Bradman Best who returns from an elbow injury.

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The Sharks will be doing their homework on Ponga this week, with their last meeting fresh in their memories where he scored three tries enroute to a 10/10 performance. This was the match where Townsend was sent off for his shoulder charge on Ponga which left the Knights’ No.1 with a bloody nose.

KEY STAT

Brayden Musgrove becomes the 324th player to represent the Newcastle Knights in the NRL: the Cessnock Goanna junior will line-up on the wing on debut at the age of 24. Musgrove – who played juniors for the Knights before leaving for Manly last season – had returned on a ‘train and trial’ deal before winning a spot in the Knights’ top 30.

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PREDICTION

With both sides coming into this game with lots of baggage it’s hard to know exactly which team will respond the best to adversity. Both clubs are missing key players, although the Sharks do have the same spine together that has played all five rounds. The Knights on the other hand will send out their fourth different halves combination of the season, a true indictment of their injury issues. Knowing how the Sharks will respond to the Morris saga is hard to judge, but if they can turn up with their minds on the job they can sneak in a close victory.

Sharks 1-12.

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