No bigger Test awaits the Newcastle Knights than when they welcome reigning NRL premiers, and arguably one of the most consistent teams of the decade, the Sydney Roosters, to their backyard this Friday night.
After a run of five straight losses following their Round 1 win over the Cronulla Sharks, the Knights have returned to form, winning four straight matches including last week’s 45-12 demolition of the Dragons, in what was coach Nathan Brown’s 100th win as an NRL coach.
They led by 28-0 at half-time and while they allowed the shellshocked Dragons to score two tries in the second half, they would keep their foot on the pedal to register their most significant victory for a very long time.
Forefront to their win on Sunday was the form of their two chief playmakers, Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce, with the former registering 26 individual points and the latter emerging as a serious candidate for the New South Wales number seven guernsey.
This Friday night’s clash against his old side, the Chooks, shapes as his last chance to stake his claim for the jumper which he has worn intermittently since his debut in the third game in 2008.
Without the pressure of playing in a glamour club like the Roosters, Pearce flourished in his early days at Newcastle before suffering a pectoral injury which would rule him out of contention for the Origin series last year.
Watching the Blues win just their second series since 2005 from the sidelines must have been frustrating for the son of former Blues coach Wayne Pearce, who also missed their other series win in 2014 due to poor form and disciplinary issues.
Coach Brad Fittler will be watching with keen interest as he will have to name the side for Game 1, to be played at Suncorp Stadium on June 5, next week.
Meantime, the Sydney Roosters will be reeling after surrendering the points for just the second time this season when it lost to the Brisbane Broncos by 15-10 in the sunshine capital last Friday night.
While the Chooks managed to score the first try of the match inside the first ten minutes, during which their soon-to-retire halfback Cooper Cronk was in the sin bin, they would not cross the line again for the rest of the match.
A last-ditch attempt at a match-winning try in the dying minutes was stopped when Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was pinged for an obstruction on Broncos fullback Darius Boyd, which resulted in the ball being turned over to the hosts, giving them the victory.
Coach Trent Robinson has said that he hopes the Roosters will learn from that defeat, and he will have them primed to hit back against the Knights in front of what is expected to be a massive crowd in Steel City.
Prior to that defeat, the Roosters had won eight consecutive matches, sending a message to the rest of the competition that they are seriously intent on achieving what no team has done in a quarter of a century – successfully defending a premiership.
Cronk has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2019 season, and so the Chooks will be out to ensure that he departs the game a winner, something they couldn’t do when Fittler bowed out at the end of the 2004 season.
Their recent record against the Knights is very impressive, having won eleven of their last thirteen against them including the last six in succession dating back to 2015.
Further, they’ve only lost four times in the Steel City since the turn of the century, last losing in 2014.
While the Newcastle Knights do face a monumental task against the reigning premiers, an upset win in front of their home fans on Friday night will not only do wonders for their confidence, but also prove that they are genuine finals contenders after a couple of lean years.