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2021 NRL Round 20 Preview, Knights Vs Raiders

Julian Vella previews this Saturday afternoon clash between two clubs fighting for a finals berth in the Knights and Raiders. This is what we have to look forward to.

TEAM NEWS

Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Date: 1/8, Time: 1:50pm AEST

Knights Team

1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Enari Tuala
3. Kurt Mann
4. Bradman Best
5. Hymel Hunt
6. Phoenix Crossland
7. Jake Clifford
8. Jacob Saifiti
9. Jayden Brailey
10. Daniel Saifiti
11. Tyson Frizell
12. Mitch Barnett
13. Connor Watson
14. Sauaso Sue
15. David Klemmer
16. Josh King
17. Brodie Jones
18. Jirah Momoisea
19. Simi Sasagi
20. Tex Hoy
21. Mitchell Pearce

Team Changes

IN: Bradman Best, David Klemmer, Simi Sasagi, Jirah Momoisea, Mitchell Pearce


OUT: Dominc Young, Jack Johns

Raiders Team

1. Jordan Rapana
2. Harley Smith-Shields
3. Jarrod Croker
4. Sebastian Kris
5. Semi Valemei
6. Jack Wighton
7. Sam Williams
8. Josh Papalii
9. Josh Hodgson
10. Emre Guler
11. Corey Harawira-Naera
12. Elliott Whitehead
13. Hudson Young
14. Tom Starling
15. Matthew Timoko
16. Isolia Soliola
17. Joseph Tapine
18. Matt Frawley
19. Ryan James
20. Bailey Simonsson
21. Dunamis Lui

Team Changes

IN: Jack Wighton, Elliot Whitehead, Dunamis Lui, Baiely Simonsson


OUT:
Ryan Sutton

Referee: Adam Gee

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Knights

Newcastle head into this game on the back of two straight losses, although on paper these were matches the Knights weren’t expected to win: against powerhouse clubs the Storm and Roosters, it was the matter in which they folded and went down without much of a fight that was most disappointing. Although they started the Roosters match well, which has been a massive issue for the side throughout 2021, they found themselves being down at halftime 10-8, despite jumping out to an 8-0 lead.

Facing a stiff breeze in the second half the Knights fell to pieces as their kicking game and ‘Football IQ’, as coach Adam O’Brien described it, went out the window. In the end a 28-8 loss has left the Knights with plenty do to make the finals for a second consecutive season. Their attack was again really poor and lacked any cohesion or rhythm; granted they were up against a good side but their failure to attack the Roosters’ edges after losing two outside backs in the first half was disappointing. Young Winger Dom Young has paid the price for two poor outings losing his spot in the side.

The Knights do have some positives heading into this weeks clash, as O’Brien was able to name three big inclusions to his side this week: barnstorming centre Bradman Best has been named to return from a six-week layoff from an ankle injury, whilst David Klemmer will take his place on the bench after sitting out last week with concussion. Halfback and former captain Mitchell Pearce has been named in jersey No.21 and will be racing the clock to be fit for this clash, the Knights look lost without their chief playmaker who has only managed to play six games in 2021.

Raiders

After their season looked dead and buried after succumbing to a humiliating 44-6 home loss to the Titans, the Raiders have bounced back into form winning three games they were not expected to win against higher-ranked opponents in the Sea Eagles, Sharks, and Eels. The win over the Eels was especially surprising as the Raiders haven’t beaten a top four side all season. Despite missing key players in Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead, and also having to field their fifth different fullback of the season in Jordan Rapana, the Raiders put in a brave performance to knock off their more fancied rivals 12-10.

In what was the last and most crucial play of the game, the Raiders were defending their own line and slender lead into the final minute of the match, the Eels swung the ball wide to their bulldozing winger Maika Sivo, who is one of the best finishers in the game. With the line wide open Sivo looked destined to score, only for a last-ditch effort from Rapana to bundle him into touch; this play embodied the spirit the Raiders played with on that night, and the new-found spirit the team is playing with.

The Raiders do welcome back both Wighton and Whitehead into their starting side this week, which should help their attack, which was at best safe and at worst clunky last week against the Eels. Both players will take up their positions on the left hand side where they are sure to send plenty of ball to target the Knights’ problematic right edge defence.

PREVIEW

If we roll back time to July 3rd Round 16, a Saturday night that seemed to have both of these clubs heading in opposite directions; the Knights were flying high after their best performance of the season, winning 38-0 against the Cowboys, whilst a couple of hours earlier in the night, the Raiders had been flogged at home by the Titans. After that night the Raiders were sitting on just 12 competition points and having already had their bye, for the Knights they were two points better off heading into their bye week and having all the momentum heading towards a finals run. Fast forward four weeks and the story has flipped 360 degrees: the Raiders are now two points above the Knights and are on a three-win streak, whilst the Knights are looking for answers after two heavy defeats.

A win here for the Raiders will put them four points above the Knights, and with just two spots left to fight for in the top eight, and no less than seven clubs scrapping for those positions, this match is crucial to both of these sides’ chances in 2021. While for Newcastle a loss would seem more detrimental to their finals chances due to their ladder position, a loss to the Raiders will be just crucial as their run home to the finals is much tougher than the Knights’ final five games. Newcastle will face just one top eight opponent in the Sharks, whilst they will face the Broncos twice and the Bulldogs once, all games which are most certainly winnable. Ricky Stuart’s side face much stiffer opposition in the Storm, Sea Eagles, and Roosters, along with the Dragons and Warriors, so a loss to the Knights here means they will have to win four of those final five games to book themselves a ticket to September.

This match has all the makings of a tight, tough and torrid affair, with plenty on the line for both clubs it will be interesting to see if either coach is brave enough to play with risk and allow his side freedom to play expansive, or if they’ll both revert to the old adage of high completions and field position to get their sides home. With so many attacking players missing for Canberra, they focussed their game plan on high completions and sturdy committed defence to upset the Eels. For Newcastle, who have struggled in attack all season, and are currently ranked 15th in attack, they like to play a simple game plan of rolling up the middle with their big middle forwards, and controlling field position on the back of a smart kicking game. Although this hasn’t always been the reflected in their on field performances, the majority of the Knights’ victories in 2021 have come in this fashion.

The last time these two sides clashed was in Round 9 this season: the Raiders ran away to a 16-0 lead at halftime before ‘fading away’ in the second half to lose 24-16, blowing good starts has been an issue for Canberra again this season after finally losing the tag as the ‘Faders’ a few seasons back, old habits have snuck back into their game this year. For Newcastle slow starts have crippled their season throughout, with the Knights the worst performing side in the opening 20 minutes of any side in the competition; the Knights have scored the first try in the match only five times this season. Both coaches will be wary of these worrying trends their sides produce, and will no doubt be drumming into their men to stay in the contest for the full 80 minutes.

Newcastle will be sweating on the fitness of Pearce, there’s no doubt Newcastle are better side with him on the park as he allows the players around him to play their natural games and not worry about steering the team around the park. The Knights have only had the luxury of having Pearce on the field at the same time as Kalyn Ponga in one match this season, in their big win over the Cowboys; it’s no surprise the Knights put in their best performance in every facet of the game that night, so their chances of winning will increase dramatically if Pearce can play.

Canberra will also be keeping an eye on whether or not Pearce will take the field, but they’ll know the Knights are still capable of beating them without their main man, as they learnt earlier this year. Canberra seem to be building momentum and playing with the spirit that has taken them to the grand final and preliminary final in the past two seasons, a spirit that seemed to have deserted them earlier this year as questions regarding their team morale were surfacing during a long run of poor form. But with both clubs heading into this clash with reasons to believe they’re not just making up the numbers in 2021, this promises to be finals like match on the final day of July.

KEY STAT

With every side now in the bubble and located in Queensland for the remainder of the season, home game advantage has gone out the window. This match was supposed to be played in Newcastle where the Knights have performed much better this season, winning five matches, but the game will be played at Suncorp Stadium, a place where the Knights just don’t perform. The Knights have only won once there in their past five outings and only twice in the past decade! Their recent form in Queensland is also awful losing their past seven matches in the Sunshine State.

PREDICTION

This match looks set to be a tight and torrid affair with both clubs knowing their seasons are on the line, and the fact this game is ultimately a four-point fixture. Neither side has set the world alight this year, especially in attack, so I’m not expecting a free flowing flamboyant attacking game. The Knights have really looked lost without Pearce this season, especially in the last two weeks: neither Jake Clifford or Phoenix Crossland look comfortable or willing to be the chief playmaker, which is hurting the side’s direction. If Pearce is fit enough to take the field that could be enough to give the Knights the edge in this clash, but without him they will struggle to find enough points to topple the rejuvenated Raiders.

Knights 1-12 (if Pearce plays).

 

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