The last time these two teams met, the Knights had delusions of a possible premiership. They had built nicely heading into the finals and had beaten the Storm a week prior to taking on the Roosters for a place in the Grand Final. Wayne Bennett’s teams don’t lose easily once they get to the finals, and a boilover was on the cards, according to some.
Then the Roosters walked out onto the field.
Aidan Guerra had the game of his life (more than 200 metres with four line breaks and 12 tackle busts) and the Roosters slaughtered the Knights 40-14, slamming the smallest of premiership windows shut. The Knights farewelled Danny Buderus and Craig Gower from that squad, and it was all downhill from there.
Fast track to this season, and they’ve had to deal with the tragic neck injury to Alex McKinnon, which rocked not just the club but the game itself. It was and remains the saddest story of the year in rugby league; a good kid who may never play again in a reminder of just how meaningless the game is when put in the context of the big picture.
They then had to deal with players not getting paid, and Darius Boyd struggling because of it. They then farewelled Nathan Tinkler, whose slow payments many blame for the malaise the club is in at the moment.
The Roosters, meanwhile, are the defending premiers and are on the upswing once again, having won their past three matches by between 14 and 20 points and who sit just a win back from first place despite a start in which many question whether they are in form.
So what is normally a game of high drama between two clubs with a proud history of battles — think back to the grand final qualifier in 2000 — could turn into a bloodbath should the Roosters show anything near the form that rocketed them to their first premiership in 11 years, because they’re playing a club without confidence — one at risk of claiming just its second wooden spoon in history.
Team for Round 14: Anthony Minichiello, Nene Macdonald, Mitchell Aubusson, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Sam Moa, Dylan Napa, Sonny Bill Williams, Frank-Paul Nuuasala. Interchange: (From) Isaac Liu, Kane Evans, Remi Casty, Daniel Mortimer, Willis Meehan.
Michael Jennings, Daniel Tupou and Aidan Guerra have all been selected for Origin duty, meaning Nene Macdonald and Kane Evans will play first grade again this week. Mitch Aubusson will shift to Jenko’s centre spot with Nene outside him, while Dylan Napa will start in Guerra’s second row spot.
Meanwhile, Daniel Mortimer and Willis “Beast Mode” Meehan have been selected on an extended bench and will fight it out for the remaining spot.
The Roosters get next week off before facing the Sea Eagles in the Grand Final Rematch Mark II in round 16. It will be their first real challenge against what should be a near full-strength squad since the flogging at the hands of the Cowboys because — let’s just call a spade a spade here — the Knights don’t pose a huge threat at the moment.
The Roosters have won three straight and six of their past seven matches, five of them by at least 13 plus and four of those by at least 20.
The Knights? They’ve lost five straight, and although they’ve had two painfully close losses to the Bulldogs and Manly in that stretch, they will be too far down on troops in this one to be considered anything close to a threat.
How they’ll play
The Warriors scored some decent tries in a 28-18 win against the Knights two rounds ago, including two that were aimed at the wing of Josh Mantellato and another down that edge through a grubber-chase from Keptin Mannreng.
The relative neophyte has some skill running the ball but really struggled in that game with the cross-field kick — or as we call it in Roosters territory, our main play. He was easily outleapt by players running onto a kick, ala this play against Vatuvei:
Seem familiar? You may remember this play from such old films as Nene Macdonald’s debut:
The Roosters will also bomb it in the other direction or spread it that way, with Uate on the other wing and McManus inside him. McManus is not the greatest leaper, Uate not the greatest catcher. Together, there should be a try or two that comes from a kick or spread play through SKD, Pearce and Sonny Bill.
Put some money on RTS and/or Mini to cross first on that wing in this game.
Uate still has a tendency to come in and he had four missed tackles against the Storm who have similar sized backs to the Roosters. While his error rate (eight in nine matches) is down on last year, it means either a heap of work has gone into his defusions or he’s a game or two away from regressing to the mean — and the Roosters will try to find out early, as he can still drop those bombs when under pressure (or sometimes without pressure).
Otherwise, attack with the second rowers. Mannering scored two tries against them, one off the aforementioned grubber and another off a short ball near the line in which he brushed off the feeble defence of Dane Gagai and Chris Houston:
Gagai misses nearly four tackles a match (47 in 12 games) while Houston misses more than two a match (23 in nine games). Why they defend together is anyone’s guess, but expect the Chooks to aim some traffic out that way. Sonny Bill could cause some carnage should the Roosters allow him a roaming role out and he drifts out that way, and Dylan Napa might even be a chance to cross.
Team for Round 14: Jake Mamo, Josh Mantellato, Dane Gagai, James McManus, Akuila Uate, Jarrod Mullen, Tyrone Roberts, David Fa’alogo, Kurt Gidley, Willie Mason, Chris Houston, Robbie Rochow, Jeremy Smith. Interchange: Adam Clydsdale, Korbin Sims, Joseph Tapine, Clint Newton.
The Knights are without Beau Scott (Origin) and Kade Snowden (suspension) for this week, with Clint Newton and Joseph Tapine joining the squad. The Knights are down Darius Boyd (Origin) and Joey Leilua (injury).
Phenom Jake Mamo, who lit up the Origin u20s game not long ago, slots into the fullback role, while James McManus shifts to the centres and Mantellato has been named on his wing.
The Knights have struggled badly this year, limping through a wretched injury run and a period in which they’re missing just one fewer player (two) than the Roosters (three) to Origin duty.
As such, they have limped to a horrid two wins from 12 games and a negative points differential of 94, being propped up from wooden spoon pole position by just the Cronulla Sharks, a club that blows the Knights’ injury crisis look like a flesh wound.
How they’ll play
The Knights, for all their losses this season, still have some class that can win a game at any point.
Jarrod Mullen is a marvellous kicker bordering on savant status, but he’s struggling with a leg injury dating back to the Nines this year. Regardless, he still has some tricks in the bag, including this effort against the Warriors, placing the kick in the tough to mark area right near the goal post:
He also kicked it out on the full with two minutes to go in that half while trying something creative in that game, but it was within an inch of coming off.
As such, the Roosters need to watch for grubbers behind the line, early chips to the wings from any part of the field, and his kicks near the line which are rarely aimed for wingers; rather he aims them at awkward spots for the defence to get to or at the centres, who across the league aren’t typically relied upon to defuse.
Uate is also a tough cover. He scored a hat-trick last week and, once the ball is firmly in hand, he’s a juggernaut. He comes up against the fledgling superstar in Macdonald, who could find the prospect of containing Uate daunting. Luckily he has Aubusson inside him: Aubo is fourth at the club among players who’ve played at least four games, completing 96 per cent of his tackles this year.
On the other wing Mantellato comes up against either Mini — who is last at the Roosters in tackle percentage completing just 76 per cent of his attempts — or The Sheck, who is second last at just 78 per cent. The Roosters should expect some traffic down that way.
On form, on paper, on every single metric, this game should be a 13+ scoreline. The Knights are headed towards the worst season from any Wayne Bennett-coached squad ever, and they are down their best defender in Scott. They are also missing a certified attacking option in Joey Leilua, while Darius Boyd at least provides the threat of an extra playmaker.
The Roosters started this season poorly and for the past three weeks haven’t come out of second gear. They had 11 line breaks last week, 52 tackle busts and at least four missed opportunities for tries, but were relaxed because they were never really in danger.
While the Knights have dangerous halves when healthy, one isn’t. As such, the Roosters should win comfortably, as they have for the past three weeks. Whether they shift into third gear or not is the only question to ponder heading into this one.
Man of the Match should be James Maloney. He could toy with young Mantellato all game through a combination of kicks and cutouts to Nene, and his form has certainly been on an uphill swing: he has seven try assists in his past three matches and could pinch a few more here.