ICYMI, on Thursday the @NRL - National Rugby League released the 2018 #NRLDraw.
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Make-or-break for both sides
Twelve months on from one of the bleakest losses in the club's 30 year history, the Knights return to Hunter Stadium eager to kick start their season after a run of losses. While few would doubt the improvement of the side from their 2016 performances, a record of one win from nine matches has begun to test the patience of supporters who recognise the need for the club to rebuild, but remain frustrated nonetheless. Competing in all bar one match so far this year, coach Nathan Brown will be hoping his side can match the enthusiasm of their performances against the Raiders last year, but with the finish required to turn a narrow loss into a hard-fought win. Once again Jaelen Feeney will start at halfback ahead of Trent Hodkinson, with the former NSW representative named as 18th man in a similar squad selected in the 38-8 loss to the Titans a fortnight ago.
The phrase ‘flying under the radar' may have been synonymous with Des Hasler in the late 2000s, but if ever there were a contemporary successor Ricky Stuart's Raiders would be it. While nowhere near the potent attacking force that riveted support from across the league at the end of last year, the Raiders have rolled along with occasional flashes of brilliance interspersed so far this year. Coming off the back of two narrow losses against Manly and Canterbury, Sunday shapes as a key game in the context of the Raiders' season, with a demolition possibly reinvigorating the side while a loss could raise alarm bells with the representative season looming large. In the only change from the side that went down 16-10 a fortnight ago, Iosia Soliola will start in place of the suspended Josh Papalii, with Dunamis Lui coming onto the bench.
Who to watch: Touted as one of the future stars of the Newcastle rebuild, hooker Danny Levi will be out to make a statement on Sunday against opposite number Josh Hodgson. Overlooked for the mid-year test by the Kiwis, Levi will have his sights set on helping the Knights record just their third win in two season, while boosting his own reputation as one of the rising dummy halves in the league. At just 21-years-old, the young rake has yet to experience the highs of first grade rugby league, but with the Knights management locking him up until the end of 2020, look for him to be starring by the time his contract is up for renewal.
Having developed into one of the players responsible for transforming the Raiders into the competitive force, Blake Austin will be out to produce a starring performance on Sunday afternoon. Performing below his brilliance best during the first third of 2017, the former Panther and Tiger should relish the opportunity to tackle a Newcastle outfit struggling for form, while continuing his own love affair playing against the Knights. Crossing for six tries in his past three matches against the Novocastrians, the 26-year-old may well determine how the game finishes at the end of 80 minutes.
My tip: The Raiders will determine how the match is played based on their performance. There is the potential for the visitors to keep up with the clock by halftime, while a lethargic showing could invite the Knights into a contest much closer than expected. The home side should be competitive overall, but it's just too hard to see anything other than a Canberra win. Raiders by 10.
3. Dane Gagai 2. Ken Sio 15. Joe Wardle 4. Peter Mata'utia 5. Nathan Ross 6. Brock Lamb 7. Jaelen Feeney 8. Daniel Saifiti 9. Danny Levi 10. Josh Starling 11. Sione Mata'utia 21. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 20. Josh King 13. Luke Yates 15. Anthony Tupou 17. Jacob Saifiti 19. Tyler Randell
1. Jack Wighton 2. Nick Cotric 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Blake Austin 7. Aidan Sezer 8. Junior Paulo 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Shannon Boyd 11. Joseph Tapine 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Luke Bateman 14. Adam Clydsdale 15. Dunamis Lui 16. Clay Priest 17. Iosia Soliola