NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS v PENRITH PANTHERS
Round 1, 2014 NSW Cup
Saturday March 8
Sportingbet Stadium, Penrith
Last Time They Met:
Newcastle recorded a close 38-26 win over Penrith (known as Windsor last year) in round 21 last season. The Knights also won the other regular season match back in round 6, charging to a comprehensive 42-28 victory.
However, when it mattered most in the Preliminary Final, it was the side from Penrith that proved too good on the day 36-32. This final result will ensure a blockbuster season-opener between the two sides at Sportingbet Stadium on Saturday.
Honeti, Mantellato, Wilame, P.Mata'utia, C.Mata'utia, Randell, Minto, Likiliki, Redman, Vaivai, Sims, Siulepa, Hilder (c) Bench: Elias, Horwood, Tupou, Saunders.
Watene-Zeleniak, Naiqama, Yeo, Eisenhuth, Aiono, Smith, John, Anderson, Moseley, Spence, Robinson, Smith, Simpkins Bench: Campbell-Gilard, Foster, Latu, Ross, Ayoub, Dibeci.
Matt Minto vs Isaac John
As one of the Knights' three off-season recruits, Minto has arrived at the Club keen to cement a starting position in the NRL.
The former premiership-winning Mackay Cutters halfback trained with the top grade squad over the pre-season, but has ended up gaining selection in the NSW Cup ranks to commence 2014.
That's not to say Minto is out of favour, because the nephew of former Broncos winger Scott Minto impressed big time in top grade training over the summer.
It's why the Club's coaching staff are confident he'll bring plenty of experience and guidance to the Knights' halves.
Minto's match-up against Penrith's No.6 Isaac John will be must-watch football.
John played 16 NRL matches last season as a key player in the Panthers' surprise surge towards the finals.
He has dropped back to the NSW Cup following the signings of halves Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward, but will provide Minto with a stern first up test.
The Minto vs John clash will be crucial and could very well decide this match.
Toka Likiliki vs Sam Anderson
Fan favourite Toka Likiliki enjoyed a strong 2013 season up front for the Knights and he hopes to build that form this year.
Likiliki has worked overtime on the training paddock with the aim of becoming more consistent.
The Kiwi-born bookend will start at prop against the Panthers and it will be his job to get the Club on the front foot in the opening exchanges.
Standing in his way is rising forward Sam Anderson from Penrith.
Anderson played three NRL games off the bench for the Panthers last season, including his top grade debut in round 9 against the Melbourne Storm.
Likiliki is more than capable of competing with Anderson, but will need to pull out a strong performance to ensure his side remains on top in this encounter.
Korbin Sims vs Matt Robinson
On the back of a strong showing for Fiji at the World Cup late last year, the Club's coaching staff insist Korbin Sims is ready to take his young career to the next level.
Talk to Sims' Fijian coach Rick Stone, who also doubles as the Knights' NSW Cup mentor, and he'll tell you Korbin has added on greater leadership role to resume after his experience in England against some of the best teams in the world.
It's form he has continued this pre-season and Stone hopes it converts over to the NSW Cup ranks this season.
Sims will take on Panthers youngster Matt Robinson in the back row, a player with enormous potential and fighting spirit, proved by the fact he has returned this season after breaking his neck last year.
A huge boost for the Knights though is the fact Sims played 12 games off the bench last year, which should make his clash against Robinson one of the best personal duals of the match.
Special Note: The match-up on the wing between Josh Mantellato and former Knight Kevin Naiqama will also be brilliant viewing. Both lads have speed to burn and will love nothing more than getting a win against a former teammate.
How the game will be won:
The forwards battle between the Knights and Panthers will ultimately decide this one. Both teams are evenly matched across the board, but the momentum has to start in the forwards for the backs to show their class out wide.
For the Knights this means big matches from the likes of Toka Likiliki, Pat Vaivai, Korbin Sims and skipper Matt Hilder.
If these guys step up, then it will enable playmakers like Matt Minto the space to lay on some points for speedsters like Mantellato and the Mata'utia brothers, Pat and Chanel.
Newcastle has proven they are more than capable of beating Penrith in the regular season, but they still need to show they can topple the men from Sydney's west when it matters most in the finals. There's no doubting that will be in the back of the Knights' minds heading into this Saturday's opening round re-match. In saying that though, both squads have changed over the pre-season with a number of new faces, which will ensure the rivalry starts again with a new chapter in this first round blockbuster. Expect a high scoring and entertaining match this Saturday.