The new-look Newcastle Knights were the media darlings of round one following their epic golden point triumph over the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in front of a packed McDonald Jones Stadium and they'll be aiming to maintain the momentum when they hit the road for the first time in 2018 and land in the nation's capital where they'll be met by Ricky Stuart's Canberra Raiders.
For the Raiders, the famous 'Green Machine' looked a long-distant memory as they gave up a handy lead to surrender the competition points on the Gold Coast to close out the first round of the season. Having dominated the Titans for long spells, leaking late points hurt the Raiders and cost them a first-round win.
With their first round one win since 2015, the Knights will head into the second week of the competition in buoyant fashion. New look halves pairing Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson still have plenty of growth and development ahead of them but they showed good signs across the 80+ minutes last week, especially Pearce who directed play confidently and slotted the key field goal in extra time.
If Ricky Stuart is as predictable as we think he might be then the Raiders will have been absolutely belted at training all week and will be fired up to turn things around quickly in front of their faithful fans on Sunday evening.
How the Knights fare away from the emotionally driving packed home crowd could dictate in large part how this one turns out.
2017 - Rd 25 - Canberra Raiders 46 def. Newcastle Knights 28 at GIO Stadium
2017 - Rd 10 - Newcastle Knights 34 def. Canberra Raiders 20 at McDonald Jones Stadium
2016 - Rd 17 - Canberra Raiders 29 def. Newcastle Knights 25 at GIO Stadium
2016 - Rd 3 - Newcastle Knights 24 drew Canberra Raiders 24 at McDonald Jones Stadium
2015 - Rd 18 - Canberra Raiders 36 def. Newcastle Knights 22 at GIO Stadium
The Knights notched one of their few wins in 2017 against the Raiders at McDonald Jones Stadium when they, much like round one 2018, rode the wave of a packed out home ground but they were brought back down to earth late in the season when the Raiders smashed them 46-28 in Canberra, in large part confirming a third consecutive wooden spoon for Newcastle.
With the large turnover of players over the off-season it is hard to now just how much recent history will act as a form guide for the Knights but given the youth and inexperience of many of their key playmakers, inconsistency could well be on the cards.
These two sides do have a history of some fairly close-fought encounters over the last few years, including the double field goal shoot-out in 2016 and a draw earlier that same season, so a close one could be expected again.
|Canberra Raiders||Newcastle Knights|
|1||Jack Wighton||Kalyn Ponga|
|2||Nick Cotric||Shaun Kenny-Dowall|
|3||Jarrod Croker||Sione Mata'utia|
|4||Joey Leilua||Tautau Moga|
|5||Jordan Rapana||Nathan Ross|
|6||Blake Austin||Connor Watson|
|7||Sam Williams||Mitchell Pearce|
|8||Iosia Soliola||Herman Ese'ese|
|9||Siliva Havili||Slade Griffin|
|10||Shannon Boyd||Jacob Lillyman|
|11||Josh Papalii||Lachlan Fitzgibbon|
|12||Elliott Whitehead||Aidan Guerra|
|13||Luke Bateman||Mitchell Barnett|
|14||Aidan Sezer||Brock Lamb|
|15||Junior Paulo||Chris Heighington|
|16||Dunamis Lui||Jamie Buhrer|
|17||Charlie Gubb||Daniel Saifiti|
|18||Craig Garvey||Ken Sio|
|19||Michael Oldfield||Jacob Saifiti|
|20||Royce Hunt||Daniel Levi|
|21||Jack Murchie||Luke Yates|
The facts that matter
The Raiders lose the experience and quality of Joseph Tapine from their round one team sheet with the forward suffering a broken finger in the Raider's loss to the Titans on the Gold Coast.
The loss of Tapine has forced Elliott Whitehead into the second row and sees Luke Bateman drafted into the starting lock role. In a more tactical decision, Ricky Stuart brings Blake Austin back off the bench after a failed experiment and pairs him with Sam Williams in the halves, leaving Aidan Sezer as the playmaker on the bench.
The Raiders backline remains intact and appears one of the stronger weapons at Ricky Stuart's beck and call. Jordan Rapana, Joey Leilua and Nick Cotric have a proven record of finding the try-line and there's every expectation they'll get opportunities on the fringes once again this week when they tackle the Knights.
Siliva Havili remains in the starting hooker role keeping Craig Garvey amongst the extended reserves list after a decent showing.
The Raiders have notched seven wins in their last nine clashes with the Knights extending back to 2013. Four of those wins have come in five games at GIO Stadium in Canberra.
Sam Williams was considered amongst the Raiders' best against the Titans, playing a strong hand in much of the good work the 'Green Machine' did going forward. While Williams rightly sees starting minutes over Sezer, with Blake Austin's ad-lib style of play much of the structure and direction will need to come from the halfback.
The Knights almost got the job done last weekend on sheer will-power and crowd force alone. With over 23,000 jammed into McDonald Jones Stadium, the Knights snuck home in a golden point thriller against Manly and they'll continue a run of being the feel-good story of the season over the early weeks.
Nathan Brown has had the luxury of naming an unchanged 21-man squad so continuity is definitely with the Knights as they look to build combinations in an entire new spine. Fullback Kalyn Ponga, who was electric against the Sea Eagles with ball in hand, five-eighth Connor Watson, halfback Mitchell Pearce and starting hooker Slade Griffin are all new recruits to the club in 2018 so more time together will definitely work in their favour moving forward.
While Ponga played a starring role last week, it was the cool head of Mitchell Pearce which proved the difference between the two sides and the former Roosters half looks a renewed figure in the Hunter, much to the excitement of the Novocastrian faithful.
With every expectation that a trip to Canberra to take on a Raiders side that was embarrassed in their capitulation last week will be a more difficult experience than riding the wave of home support, it's fair to say this week poses a much tougher challenge to Nathan Brown and his men.
First and foremost, I'm tipping points and lots of them. These sides have played out some high-scoring contests over the years and both like to play the sort of football that's conducive to crossing the touchline while defence might end up out the window if it becomes a slugfest early.
I think the Raiders will be genuinely smarting after the way they managed to contrive a loss on the Gold Coast last week and a hard-nosed mentor like Ricky Stuart will have drummed the unacceptability of the result into his side all week.
Off the back of that, I think the Raiders could have an edge over the Knights who did enough to win in round one but definitely have plenty of work to do to become a consistently competitive outfit week to week.
With all that, you'd think I'd back the Raiders, but I like a feel-good story as much as anyone and there's always a chance the Knights could get the job done. Newcastle by four points.