NRL preview: Round 20

CRONULLA SHARKS v NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

Date: Sunday July 24
Gates open: 11.40am
Kick-off: 2.00pm
Venue: Southern Cross Group Stadium
Broadcast: Fox Sports

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Played: 47
Knights: 27
Storm: 19
Drawn: 1

SQUADS

Knights
1. Dane Gagai, 2. Nathan Ross, 3. Pat Mata’utia, 4. Peter Mata’utia, 5. Brendan Elliot, 6. Jarrod Mullen, 7. Trent Hodkinson, 8. Sam Mataora, 9. Daniel Levi, 10. Korbin Sims, 11. Pauli Pauli, 12. Mitch Barnett, 13. Jeremy Smith. Interchange: 14. Chris Adams, 15. Jacob Saifiti, 16. Josh King, 17. Mickey Paea, 20. David Bhana.

Sharks
1. Ben Barba, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Jack Bird, 4. Gerard Beale, 5. Valentine Holmes, 6. James Maloney, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Michael Ennis, 10. Sam Tagataese, 11. Luke Lewis, 12. Wade Graham, 13. Paul Gallen. Interchange: 14. Joseph Paulo, 15. Chris Heighington, 16. Matt Prior, 17. Jayson Bukuya.

TALKING POINTS

Take two against the Sharks

It was a dark day for the team and the fans last time the Knights came up against the Sharks, with the young red and blues copping a 62-0 defeat.

The average age of the team was 21 that day, and since then Jarrod Mullen, Trent Hodkinson, Peter Mata’utia, Nathan Ross and Sam Mataora have returned from injury.

Mich Barnett, Brendan Elliot and Chris Adams have also been welcomed to the Club, meaning only seven of the players that participated in Round 10 will be lining up again this weekend.

“What happened earlier in the year, I feel we are a better team than what we were then,” Nathan Brown said during the week.

“We can’t really worry about what happened earlier in the year.”

It will be a huge challenge for the Knights, as the Sharks are sitting at the top of the table with a 14 game unbeaten streak.



Injuries and suspensions

Just as the team was starting to build some momentum with highly competitive performances against the Raiders and the Storm, Brown finds himself without four first-team players.

Last week’s Players’ Player in Jake Mamo has been suspended along with Daniel Saifiti, while the impressive Robbie Rochow and Sione Mata’utia have been sidelined due to injury.

Rochow and Mata’utia have been the Knights’ best forwards in recent weeks, and their influence will be missed.

“The guys who are coming in to replace the guys who are injured and suspended, they need to lift their game and rise to the levels that have been set over the previous few weeks,” Brown said in a press conference.

“Sione is a young player who has just changed position and I think everyone would agree he has been one of the best players on the field in both games (against the Raiders and Storm).”

Pauli Pauli is back

Pauli Pauli makes a return to NRL this weekend with the omission of Sione Mata’utia.

In his last three games in reserve grade he has scored three tries playing in the second row, and has also had time to work on his fitness playing for longer minutes.

“Pauli has had three games in reserve grade and has been in the top one or two players every week and that gives him another chance to see what he can do,” Brown explained.

Weighing in at 120kg, Pauli has the potential to damage any team with his deceptive footwork and sheer strength.



Playmakers reunited

Mullen didn’t miss a beat when he returned to the field against the Storm, controlling the tempo of play for much of the match and setting up Mamo for a try with his kicking game.

It freed up Hodkinson to focus on his game, who has now had five different halves partners this season.

The pair have only played eight games together all up, but gelled nicely against the Storm.

“He had a nice solid game for us and his kicking game was great and his commitment was good,” Brown said of Mullen’s return.

“Hopefully he is a player who can stay on the field now and finish the back end of the year.”

THE FINAL SAY

“They are playing outstanding football at the momentum and there is a lot of respect there, but I am focused on our game and we are going to keep building and trying to improve each week,” Brendan Elliot said on Tuesday.

“We want to build on each performance, and I think if we do that to the Sharks, we will really bring it to them.”