Round 3: Roosters v Knights preview
Since U Been Gone: Pearce & co. look to get what they want over Roosters
Bouncing back in style against the Bulldogs last Friday, the Roosters will look to assert their credentials as premiership contenders against a Newcastle outfit intent on proving a point. Having suffered a shock loss in the opening round, the much-hyped star power of off-season purchases James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk rose to the occasion against Canterbury, with both players actively contributing to the final scoreline. While the obvious benefits of the 30-12 victory were apparent for all to see, the win was not without casualties, with representative winger Daniel Tupou sustaining a long-term pectoral injury. With Tupou set to miss at least three months of football, well-travelled speedster Reece Robinson will make his return to rugby league following a stint with the NSW Waratahs, while Ryan Matterson has been formally named in the starting side ahead of Mitchell Aubusson, following two run-on performances against the Tigers and Bulldogs. While coach Trent Robinson has shown his preference to field sides as per program during his tenure at the Roosters, recent purchases Kurt Baptiste and 2013 premiership winner Frank-Paul Nu'uausala may be in contention to be late inclusions after being named as part of the extended bench for the first time this season. Holding an imposing record of eight wins from the past nine clashes against the Knights, the Roosters will be eager to continue their winning ways, while using the occasion to celebrate Latrell Mitchell's 50th appearance for the club after debuting in the opening round of 2016.
Having conditioned supporters to become accustomed to performances defined by effort, but rarely translated into wins, the reality of an unbeaten Newcastle side appears to be an anomaly given their recent history. As one of five teams sitting atop the competition ladder, the progression coach Nathan Brown has overseen since assuming the role two years ago can be seen as testament to the benefits of short-term heartache in the pursuit of long-term success. Heading into the Round 3 fixture off the back of two hard-fought wins - a rarely sighted scenario during the early stages of Brown's reign - the former Dragons mentor will have his sights set on masterminding a monumental upset against a Roosters outfit many of his players know only too well. Recruiting the services of four former Eastern Suburbs players headlined by Mitchell Pearce, the new-look Knights will fancy their chances of continuing their winning ways, while being acutely aware of the variety of ways the Roosters are capable of dismantling opposition teams. Retaining the same squad that triumphed over Manly and Canberra, co-captain Jamie Buhrer is set to return after sitting out last week, while lock Mitchell Barnett is in doubt for clash after sustaining a concussion against his former club last week.
Who to watch: In a Roosters outfit thriving with critically adored stars, unassuming workhorse Isaac Liu has developed into one of the clubs most reliable players. Handed his first grade debut shortly after Trent Robinson's arrival in 2013, the 26-year-old has remained a constant fixture among the Roosters ranks, progressing from an occasional bench player to starting forward, all the while accruing representative honours with Samoa and most recently New Zealand. Crossing for 50% of his career tries against the Knights, look for Liu to take on the line on Sunday night, while remaining as effective as ever in laying down a platform for the likes of Tedesco, Mitchell and Ferguson to work their natural ability on the field.
In a side that has fought to earn the respect of opponents, few players better represent the Knights ascension than Lachlan Fitzgibbon. Having struggled to break into a Newcastle outfit that managed a solitary win two years ago, the 24-year-old South Newcastle junior has risen through the ranks to become arguably the side's most potent attacking threat. Scoring seven tries in his past seven appearances, Fitzgibbon has evoked memories of hard-running Newcastle legends Ben Kennedy and Steve Simpson with his willingness to exploit opposition defensive structures, while greatly benefiting from the arrival of Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga. While far from a complete player given his relative NRL inexperience, Fitzgibbon has shown himself to be a competitor on the rise with the potential to take the Knights towards a new era of glory.
My tip: While Newcastle have reaped the benefits of an improved roster to grind out narrow victories over Manly and Canberra, the challenge posed by a Roosters outfit renown as one the premier teams of recent years should serve as a reality check for where the Knights stand in NRL pecking order. Roosters by 13.