Newcastle Knights vs South Sydney Rabbitohs: Lineups, preview and prediction

McDonald Jones Stadium, Friday 4th May, 6pm AEST.

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Overview

Two clubs that have tasted disappointment for a few seasons but currently rest inside the Top 8 (the Knights are 6th and the Rabbitohs are 7th) clash in Newcastle this Friday night.

After the mother of all rebuilds the Knights appear to have finally turned the corner and are consistently competitive against quality opposition while also beating teams they should beat, winning 5 of their first 8 games.  The injured Mitchell Pearce was instrumental for many of the victories while Kalyn Ponga has stolen the headlines; defences haven't quite worked out how to handle him yet.

The Rabbitohs have had their share of player turnover since their premiership win in 2014, choosing to build a team around players like Greg Inglis, Adam Reynolds, the Burgess brothers and John Sutton.  With new additions Dane Gagai and Damien Cook the Rabbitohs have increased their strike power while Alex Johnston's move to fullback appears to be more permanent after a string of encouraging performances.  They've won half of their 8 games to date and see the road trip to the Hunter as a chance to prove that they are a contender this year.

Recent meetings

18th March 2017 – Rabbitohs won 24-18

28th August 2016 – Rabbitohs won 34-12

12th March 2016 – Rabbitohs won 48-6

25th July 2015 – Rabbitohs won 52-6

3rd August 2014 – Rabbitohs won 50-10

As illustrated above, the Rabbitohs have dominated the Knights in recent years.  The Rabbitohs have won their last 8 encounters.  In the 5 games listed above the collective scoreline is Rabbitohs 208 – Knights 52.  The Rabbitohs have literally scored 4 times more points than the Knights.  It has to be said the Knights are a stronger team in 2018 though.

Overall, the two clubs have played each other 40 times, with the Knights holding the advantage after winning 25 of those matches.  Their home ground advantage is significant as well, with  16 wins from the 21 games played in Newcastle.  The Knights will hope a home ground advantage gets them over the line this Friday.

Lineups

Newcastle Knights South Sydney Rabbitohs
1 Kalyn Ponga Alex Johnston
2 Ken Sio Campbell Graham
3 Sione Mata'utia Greg Inglis
4 Nathan Ross Dane Gagai
5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall Robert Jennings
6 Connor Watson Cody Walker
7 Jack Cogger Adam Reynolds
8 Herman Ese'ese Thomas Burgess
9 Slade Griffin Damien Cook
10 Daniel Saifiti George Burgess
11 Lachlan Fitzgibbon John Sutton
12 Aidan Guerra Angus Crichton
13 Mitch Barnett Cameron Murray
Interchange
14 Jamie Buhrer Adam Doueihi
15 Chris Heighington Mark Nicholls
16 Luke Yates Jason Clark
17 Jacob Saifiti Tevita Tatola
Reserves
18 Cory Denniss Robbie Farah
19 Jacob Lillyman Hymel Hunt
20 Danny Levi Braidon Burns
21 Josh King Kyle Turner

The facts that matter

Knights

While the Knights sit in 6th place with 5 wins, their first 8 weeks haven't all been rosy.  My colleague Rob Sebastian mentioned last week the Knights have had a tendency to leak points, particularly letting games get away from them.  Across their first 8 games, they've averaged 17.3 points for and 24.5 against.  These numbers are not sustainable and, long-term, no amount of Kalyn Ponga brilliance will keep you in contention for the big dance.  With Mitchell Pearce out until at least Round 18, their defence becomes even more crucial, as it is unlikely that a playmaking combination of Jack Cogger and Connor Watson will be able to consistently create enough opportunities to offset 24 points per game.

Considering the recent strength of the Rabbitohs' forward pack, the Knights must nullify their middle third to be any chance of prevailing.  If they allow the Rabbitohs to complete sets and roll into good ball regularly, the instinctive players like Cody Walker and Alex Johnston should have the class to capitalise.  Ese'ese and Daniel Saifiti need to start the game well and bend the Rabbitohs' line, while Mitch Barnett and Slade Griffin have to ensure that they keep the line speed up in defence, while also patrolling the pivotal 'A defender' position to nullify Cook's running game.  It's a big ask.

Rabbitohs

The Rabbitohs have been one of the many clubs this year who have been hard to deal with in footy tipping; one week they look like genuine contenders with a forward pack full of English siblings that tear through opponents enough for probably the greatest outside back of the modern era to take advantage, the other they fail to capitalise on opportunities and lose to sides they should have the class to put away, like the Broncos last week.

They will be without Sam Burgess again this week, but he hasn't been as important to their success as he has in previous seasons.  The rise of Tom and George Burgess has ensured that Rabbitohs fans are receiving their weekly dose of Vitamin B(urgess) while John Sutton is playing his best football since their premiership triumph 4 years ago.  Coach Anthony Seibold will again hope his forwards can lay the platform that allows his pace-men (Damien Cook, Alex Johnston, Cody Walker) the room they need to cut the Knights to ribbons through the middle and on the fringes.  Look out for a particularly inspired game from former Knight Dane Gagai, who will be aiming to secure his spot on Queensland's wing with a month of good football before Origin 1.

Prediction

The advantage the Knights will receive from playing in front of their home fans is significant, but the Rabbitohs should have the class to get the job done in key areas of the field this Friday.  The Knights won't let the result blow out in front of their home fans, so expect the Rabbitohs by 8.

Can the Knights notch another valuable win or will the Bunnies be too strong? Let us know in the comments below.

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