NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS v MELBOURNE STORM
Round 3, 2014 NRL Premiership
Monday, March 24 NRL Kick-Off 7pm
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Gavin Morris
Last Time They Met:
Who could forget Newcastle’s incredible 18-16 semi-final win over Melbourne last season?
That memorable night in September was the Club’s first victory against the Storm in Melbourne since 2004 and a win that built enormous confidence in the playing squad.
Flash forward five months and a lot has changed. The Knights have opened the season with consecutive defeats, while the Storm have recorded two courageous one-point victories.
That said, Newcastle will head to AAMI Park knowing they have what it takes to topple the Storm on home turf and will have replicate that type of effort and intensity again on Monday night.
As mentioned, Newcastle has won only one of their past 11 matches against the Storm in Melbourne.
In fact, Knights have struggled to beat the Storm at all venues in recent seasons.
The Club's last victory against Melbourne in Newcastle was back in 2009, a 26-14 win in round 23.
Craig Bellamy's men also claimed both regular season matches last season.
In round 14 the Storm won 16-14 at home, while they also claimed victory 23-10 at Hunter Stadium in round 23.
Minto, McManus, Gagai. Leilua, Uate, Dobson, Roberts, Snowden, Gidley (c), Mason, Scott, Rochow, Smith. Interchange: Waddell, Houston, McKinnon, Cuthbertson, Fa’alogo.
Slater, Waqa, Chambers, Fonua, Tonumaipea, Hampton, Cronk, J.Bromwich, Smith (c), Norrie, Proctor, Hoffman, Hinchcliffe. Interchange: K.Bromwich, Harris, McLean, Rose.
For Newcastle, Melbourne's AAMI Park hasn't been a happy hunting ground in recent seasons.
Luckily for the men in red and blue, this most recent win was last September and assistant coach Rick Stone believes the team can draw inspiration from that recent result.
"We’ll take a little bit of joy out of last years semi-final game," Stone says.
"We went down there and beat Melbourne in a real terrific game, so we are looking forward to taking down some good memories and feeding off that.
"It’s always a hard road trip, because their record down there at AAMI Park or in Melbourne generally is strong.
"But the lads are excited by the challenge."
As difficult as it is to beat Melbourne at home, Stone remains confident Newcastle can win if they turn up focused on Monday night.
"You’ve got to play for 80 minutes and you’ve got to go down there with a positive attitude to win and start the game to win," he says.
"You’ve got to play for the whole period, because we’ve been down there in the last couple of years and been nutted on the bell and almost got rolled in that semi-final.
"So you know you’ve got to be on your guard the whole time and prepared for anything.
"You’ve also got to be prepared to chance your arm a little bit against a good defensive side."
Matt Minto vs Billy Slater
Newcastle will face plenty against a star-studded Storm side.
Let's start from the back with Matt Minto lining up opposite arguably the best fullback we've ever seen in Billy Slater.
Minto was solid in his debut match for the Club against Canberra last Sunday and Stone has no doubts he'll hold his own against Slater.
"I thought last week he was sound Matty," he enthuses.
"He threw a lovely pass for Aku’s first try, our first try of the day.
"And positionally he was pretty good. He made one little error at the end, but I think overall he was pretty good and it will be a big job for him coming up against Billy."
While going toe-to-toe with Slater will be tough work for Minto, Stone pinpoints Storm halfback Cooper Cronk as his biggest test.
"I think it’s going to be Cronk's kicking game that he’ll have to be aware of," he explains.
"Cooper was back for Melbourne last week and he is a real important part of their team and one of the best kickers in the game.
"So Matty will have to be on his game and we’ll have to do a little bit of work to prepare for Monday night."
Tyrone Roberts vs Cooper Cronk
Talk to Stone and his eyes light up at the prospect of this match-up.
Roberts was one of the Knights' standout performers in the loss to Canberra, but this battle against Cronk is a significant step-up in class.
The Storm, Queensland and Australian representative possess one of the best kicking games in the NRL and Tyrone will have to be at his best to counteract it.
In saying that, Roberts can take plenty of confidence from his star performance against the Storm at AAMI Park last September. The Ballina-born No.7 was brilliant in that semi-final win and will need to reproduce a similar effort to get his side across the line on Monday.
Kurt Gidley vs Cameron Smith
Another crucial match-up will be the battle between the captains, Kurt Gidley and Cameron Smith.
Both players play major roles for their respective teams from dummy half with their smarts and speed.
Of course it's difficult to stop Smith, the NRL's most consistent player, but Stone believes Gidley's enthusiasm around the ruck is a positive for the Knights.
"That’s a good battle, because again Cameron is probably one of the better players in the game," he says.
"I think Gids will warm into the hooker role.
"It’s his first time there for a while last Sunday and I think he’ll only get better and I don’t think we’ll see the best of him for a few weeks yet as far as that role is concerned.
"But his infectious energy and competitiveness is great to have in the middle.
"He racked up plenty of tackles and he is great on the kick pressure and all those little things that you need to do to be consistent against the Melbourne Storm.
"Kurt sort of covers that pretty well, so that’s a pretty big advantage for us with the energy that he brings in the middle."
Player to watch:
Beau Scott. The Camden-born back-rower has been one of the Knights' best performers to start the season.
On the back of a strong running game and two tries to boot, Stone says Scott is ready to take a lead role against Melbourne.
"I think Beau is obviously well known for his defensive qualities, but he has also shown that he has some attacking qualities there as well," he says.
"His combination with Dobbo is coming together and it will improve as time goes on of course.
"He is a decent athlete Beau and he showed that with his 40 metre run to the line last weekend.
"Hopefully we can see a few more plays like that."
Where will it be won:
There's no doubting the Storm are tough to beat in Melbourne, but Newcastle has great memories of their most recent clash at AAMI Park.
As much as last year's 18-16 semi-final win evokes great memories for the playing squad, the reality is they'll have significantly improve their performances in the opening two rounds to topple Melbourne on home turf.
Throw in the fact the Knights will be without injured duo Boyd and Mullen and suddenly repeating their magical effort from last September seems out of reach.
But as coach Wayne Bennett rightly pointed out after training on Wednesday, Newcastle pushed Melbourne to the limit in round 14 last season with skipper Kurt Gidley on the sidelines injured.
The close 16-14 loss was proof the Knights can compete with the Storm minus key players.