Time was when the Newcastle Knights were close to the toughest – if not the toughest – opponents for the Vodafone Warriors in the NRL.
In the first 10 encounters between the two sides, the Vodafone Warriors won only once, famously so as they blitzed the Knights 42-0 in 1999.
Of course, the Andrew Johns factor had much to do with it; without him, times have understandably been a lot more challenging since.
In fact, of the last 20 encounters the Vodafone Warriors have won 14 and boast a 9-1 record in the last 10 meetings at Mount Smart Stadium.
The difference with Monday’s contest is that the Vodafone Warriors are still striving for their first victory of the season after competitive losses to Wests Tigers, Brisbane and Melbourne, three teams which are all in the top eight at this early stage.
The Knights haven’t had a win either but they will come to Mount Smart Stadium buoyed by their showing against Canberra last weekend when they all but grabbed victory before being forced to settle for a 24-24 extra-time draw.
It was an effort which said much about Newcastle’s resolve. Coming off heavy away losses to Gold Coast (12-30) and South Sydney (6-48) they rebounded impressively in front of their home crowd.
For all that, the defeats in Robina and Sydney underlined Newcastle’s challenges winning on the road with just seven victories in their last 26 away games since the start of the 2014 season.
Despite that record they have been difficult opponents for the Vodafone Warriors in Auckland, pushing all the way in a 20-24 loss and winning 24-19 in 2012.
Only the present counts for the Vodafone Warriors’ coaching staff and players although recent history – their last three games – is instructive.
It has revealed ongoing improvement in some key categories, notably in defence where the missed tackle rate has come down progressively from 32 to 20 and 19 against Melbourne last week. There has also been a corresponding reduction in the number of line breaks conceded from five against Wests Tigers, to four against Brisbane and just one against the vaunted Melbourne side last Sunday.
FIVE KEY FEATURES
#1 JACOB LILLYMAN | ‘Bull’ is about to reach his second significant individual milestone in the space of 12 games. First it was his 200th career game last season and this week he moves within one match of becoming the 11th player to appear in 150 games for the club.
#2 JAZZ TEVAGA | The Christchurch-born, Papakura-raised Tevaga has had more time to prepare for his second NRL outing after being called in at the 11th hour for his debut against Melbourne last week when he replaced veteran hooker Issac Luke.
#3 SAM LISONE | After starting his second NRL campaign against Wests Tigers, Lisone had his progress checked when he picked up a shoulder injury against Brisbane. Now he’s back from a short spell looking to add punch from the bench.
#4 KONRAD HURRELL | Set for his first NRL outing in 2016 after appearing for the club’s Intrust Super Premiership side in the opening three rounds of the season. He has been named on the bench after making 152 metres from 14 runs against Newtown last Sunday.
#5 CHARLIE GUBB | The Wellingtonian has a cult following among a group of supporters sitting in the lower West Stand just behind the Vodafone Warriors’ benches. They’ll fire up their Charlie Gubb chant again when their favourite is about to take the field.
TOP STATS | SUNDAY, MARCH 20 v MELBOURNE STORM | LOST 14-21
Penalties | Vodafone Warriors 9, Melbourne 7.
Completions | Vodafone Warriors 26/35 (74%), Melbourne 34/38 (90%).
Total runs | Vodafone Warriors 179, Melbourne 162.
Metres gained | Vodafone Warriors 1331, Melbourne 1320.
Dummy half runs (metres) | Vodafone Warriors 11 (78), Melbourne 10 (63).
Line breaks | Vodafone Warriors 4, Melbourne 1.
Tackle breaks | Vodafone Warriors 27, Melbourne 17.
Kicks (kicking metres) | Vodafone Warriors 16 (402), Melbourne 21 (569).
Tackles Made | Vodafone Warriors 328, Melbourne 326.
Missed tackles | Vodafone Warriors 17, Melbourne 27.
Offloads | Vodafone Warriors 16, Melbourne 11.
Errors | Vodafone Warriors 9, Melbourne 4.
Runs | Vodafone Warriors: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 25, Ben Matulino 19, Ryan Hoffman 16, Tuimoala Lolohea 15, Simon Mannering 14, Solomone Kata 12, Jacob Lillyman 12, Jonathan Wright 11, Shaun Johnson 10. Melbourne: Jesse Bromwich 19, Cameron Munster 17, Marika Koroibete 15, Young Tonumaipea 15, Tohu Harris 12, Will Chambers 11, Tim Glasby 11, Kenny Bromwich 10, Jordan McLean 10.
Metres gained | Vodafone Warriors: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 247, Ben Matulino 142, Ryan Hoffman 123, Solomone Kata 100, Simon Mannering 95, Jonathan Wright 90, Jacob Lillyman 90. Melbourne: Marika Koroibete 163, Jesse Bromwich 150, Cameron Munster 135, Young Tonumaipea 118, Will Chambers 114.
Tackle breaks | Vodafone Warriors: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 7, Solomone Kata 7, Tuimoala Lolohea 6. Melbourne: Cameron Munster 4, Will Chambers 3.
Off loads | Vodafone Warriors: Ben Matulino 4, Jazz Tevaga 3, Simon Mannering 2. Melbourne: Will Chambers 4, Jesse Bromwich 4.
Tackles made | Vodafone Warriors: Bodene Thompson 52, Simon Mannering 40, Jazz Tevaga 33, Shaun Johnson 31, Blake Ayshford 27, Jacob Lillyman 23, Jeff Robson 20. Melbourne: Cameron Smith 41, Dale Finucane 39, Kevin Proctor 35, Jesse Bromwich 30, Jordan McLean 26, Tim Glasby 26, Will Chambers 21, Kenny Bromwich 20, Cooper Cronk 20.
Missed tackles | Vodafone Warriors: Bodene Thompson 0, Simon Mannering 0, Ben Matulino 0, James Gavet 0, Jonathan Wright 0, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 0, Tuimoala Lolohea 0, Nathaniel Roache 0. Melbourne: Jordan McLean 0, Felise Kaufusi 0, Christian Welch Nichol 0.
Supports | Vodafone Warriors: Simon Mannering 13, Solomone Kata 12, Ryan Hoffman 10, Jeff Robson 10. Melbourne: Blake Green 15, Tohu Harris 13, Young Tonumaipea 11, Marika Koroibete 11.
RECORD | v NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS
Overall | Played 34, Vodafone Warriors 16, Newcastle 17, Drawn 1.
Away | Played 19, Vodafone Warriors 10, Newcastle 8, Drawn 1.
Vodafone Warriors debuts | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (#203), Blake Ayshford (#204), Jeff Robson (#205), Issac Luke (#206), Nathaniel Roache (#207) and James Gavet (#208) made their debuts for the Vodafone Warriors against Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium on March 5 (Round 1).
Jazz Tevaga (#209) made his club debut for the Vodafone Warriors against Melbourne at Mount Smart Stadium on March 20 (Round 3).
NRL debut | Nathaniel Roache made his NRL debut for the Vodafone Warriors against Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium on March 5 (Round 1).
Jazz Tevaga (#209) made his NRL debut for the Vodafone Warriors against Melbourne at Mount Smart Stadium on March 20 (Round 3).
Most NRL appearances for Vodafone Warriors | Simon Mannering plays his 240th NRL game (Stacey Jones’ record is 261).
250 NRL games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Simon Mannering plays his 240th NRL game for the Vodafone Warriors.
200 NRL games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Ben Matulino plays his 177th NRL game for the Vodafone Warriors.
200 NRL games (overall) | Issac Luke (injured) has played 190 NRL games – two so far for the Vodafone Warriors – after appearing in 188 matches for South Sydney.
150 NRL games for Vodafone Warriors | Jacob Lillyman plays his 149th NRL game for the Vodafone Warriors, the 211th of his career including 62 for North Queensland.
150 NRL games (overall) | Blake Ayshford plays his 128th NRL game after appearing in 104 for Wests Tigers and 20 for Cronulla.
100 NRL games (overall) | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck plays his 88th NRL game after appearing in 84 for Sydney Roosters.
50 NRL games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Sione Lousi has played 49 games for the Vodafone Warriors; Tuimoala Lolohea plays his 30th game for the Vodafone Warriors; Solomone Kata plays his 28th game for the Vodafone Warriors.
150 NRL tries | Manu Vatuvei has scored 146 tries in 210 NRL appearances. Only 10 players in history have scored 150 tries in the competition. Vatuvei is 12th on the all-time list, just behind the great Bob Fulton (147). The only current players ahead of him are Billy Slater (172 in 278 games) and Brett Stewart (163 in 223 games).
10 tries or more in a season | Manu Vatuvei has the all-time NRL record having scored 10 tries or more in 10 consecutive seasons from 2006-2015.
600 NRL points | Manu Vatuvei has scored 584 points; Shaun Johnson has scored 554 points.
500 NRL points | Issac Luke has scored 414 points.
50 NRL tries | Shaun Johnson has 46 tries; Konrad Hurrell has 41 tries; Issac Luke has 37 tries; Blake Ayshford has 34 tries; Jonathan Wright has 33 tries; Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has 28 tries.
50 NRL games as NRL coach (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Andrew McFadden coaches the Vodafone Warriors for the 47th time.
250 games at Mount Smart Stadium | This will be the Vodafone Warriors’ 245th game at Mount Smart Stadium (242 regular season games plus three home finals).
2000 tries in the NRL since 1995 | 1922 (1995-2016)
VODAFONE WARRIORS v NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
4.00pm, Monday, March 28
Referees: Adam Devcich and Chris James
1 ROGER TUIVASA-SHECK (Otahuhu Leopards)
2 TUIMOALA LOLOHEA (Marist Saints)
3 BLAKE AYSHFORD (Paddington Tigers)
4 SOLOMONE KATA (Howick Hornets)
5 JONATHAN WRIGHT (Northern Lake Warriors)
6 SHAUN JOHNSON (Hibiscus Coast Raiders)
7 JEFF ROBSON (Leeton Greenies)
8 JACOB LILLYMAN (Richmond Tigers)
9 JAZZ TEVAGA (Papakura Sea Eagles)
10 BEN MATULINO (Te Aroha Eels)
11 BODENE THOMPSON (Tauranga City Sharks)
12 RYAN HOFFMAN (Campbelltown Collegians) (c)
13 SIMON MANNERING (Te Aroha Eels)
14 CHARLIE GUBB (University Hunters)
15 SAM LISONE (Otara Scorpions)
16 KONRAD HURRELL (Mount Albert Lions)
17 ALBERT VETE (Mangere East Hawks)
HEAD COACH | ANDREW McFADDEN
1 DANE GAGAI
2 NATHAN ROSS
4 PAT MATA'UTIA
5 CORY DENNISS
6 JARROD MULLEN
7 TRENT HODKINSON (c)
8 SAM MATAORA
9 TYLER RANDELL
10 KORBIN SIMS
11 JACOB SAIFITI
12 ROBBIE ROCHOW
13 JEREMY SMITH
14 DANNY LEVI
15 MICKEY PAEA
16 LACHLAN FITZGIBBON
17 PAULI PAULI
COACH | NATHAN BROWN
Head to head | Vodafone Warriors $1.22, Newcastle Knights $4.00
SKY SPORT 2: Live from 3.30pm (kick-off 4.05pm), Monday, March 28