Knights tackle Victorian rivals in do-or-die clash

READY FOR ACTION: Blue Lake Knights’ Jay Mariano, Dale Anderson and club president Brenton Hodge are ready to take on the Warrnambool Raiders in the Limestone Coast Rugby League do-or-die semi-final tomorrow at Horsham. Picture: JAMES MURPHY

IT will be a case of South Australia versus Victoria when the Blue Lake Knights head to Horsham tomorrow for the Limestone Coast Rugby League semi-final.

The Knights have a tough task ahead, up against the minor premiers Warrnambool Raiders in a do-or-die scenario.

Lose and the season is over.

Win and a grand final berth awaits.

The Knights are certainly the underdogs heading into the clash, with the Raiders only dropping two games for the minor season.

Both times the two sides have met the Raiders came away victorious, but the Knights have certainly improved as the season has progressed.

Last time the teams faced off the Raiders were victorious by 20 points, but the Knights had a small roster, with just one player on the bench to start the game.

But they stuck with their more fancied rival until later in the game when a lack of numbers and further injuries saw Warrnambool take the advantage.

This weekend sees the Knights with a full roster, ready to take up the challenge.

For club president Brenton Hodge it is the culmination of a season of hard work and overcoming adversity, which he hopes will return the desired result.

However, he is under no illusions it will be anything but a tough encounter.

“I think to go in with any illusions it will not be tough is silly,” he said.

“But we know that and we have been working towards a game plan all year.

“The boys are pretty keen and we should have a relatively full squad.

“Everyone is fighting fit and I think that will be the difference for us.”

Hodge said the struggle to keep numbers on the park this season had been the downfall of the side in several games.

“I think we have gone down in the past, because we have broken down,” he said.

“We have had injuries, reduced our bench and then we just have not had the legs to see out the rest of the game with full steam.

“This week going into the game with a bench and all players pretty keen, with a week off to rest, we will certainly back ourselves.”

The back end of the season has seen some positive results for the Knights.

They went down to last season’s premiers the Naracoorte Jets by just four points, easily accounted for the Horsham Panthers and defeated former top side the Gunditjmara Bulls by a fair margin, but injuries did force their hands against the Raiders.

As a result the confidence is high among the squad, with plenty of energy shown at training this week.

“Our confidence has been building each week,” Hodge said.

“We have been making our plays, our fitness has improved and everything has steadily worked itself towards the finish line.

“We are certainly going in full of confidence and ready to take it up to them and end their season.”

While the Raiders certainly helped set the benchmark in the league this season, it is clear they are beatable, but it will take a big effort from the Knights to claim the honours.

However, there are plenty of names in the Mount Gambier side who will have an impact on the contest and set up the chance to win.

Lloyd Pearce-Raisin is one such player, who has been a constant in the side for the last few years.

His passion for the game is never in doubt and his knowledge is an asset, which could be a game-changer on the day.

“Lloyd is a good general on the park,” Hodge said.

“He really lifts the players and certainly leads by example.

“He does not ask anything of anyone he would not do himself.”

Donovan Wood is another who will play a major role, along with Jackson Standon.

The two play-makers will be an important part of the contest to help lift the Knights to victory.

“Donovan and Jackson are critical to the team,” Hodge said.

“They are our two play makers in the side and when they have the ball in their hand it is up to them to make the magic happen.

“I believe they have been doing that well.

“We have been scoring tries both sides of the park and through the middle, so we are really moving the ball around with confidence.

“They are creating the opportunities we need and I am really looking forward to see how they go on the weekend.”

The big boys in the side such as Alex Sullivan and Grady Hutchesson have also made their mark this year and will be called on yet again to push hard to the line.

“Our forward pack has always been our main strength,” Hodge said.

“The boys are determined and they have size and good strength to get over that line.

“If we get close to the line, we will look for them to finish.”

Chris Driver is another who has chalked up tries this season and will again be important in both offence and defence.

“Chris comes off our second row and has been putting in the run and the hard yards,” Hodge said.

“His tackling is right there and he is just so keen to score, as is everyone.”

Another factor is converting those hard runs after reaching the try line.

Jay Mariano takes on the kicking duties and has improved throughout the season.

His ability to find the middle of the posts from wide on the park has made a big difference to the side.

It has provided opportunities to score anywhere on the park, with the confidence he can convert.

“You can score more tries than the opposition and still lose if you are not converting,” Hodge said.

“Jay had a bit of a shaky start to the season, but decided to take it on board and work towards getting the results.

“He really wants to score for the team, to take that responsibility to convert those tries people have worked hard to get.”

Hodge said in the end the game could be decided early.

He said his players need to hold their nerve in the opening half and push hard from there.

But he said a major factor would be the defensive line.

“We need to focus on our defence, then use the ball well when we have it in our hands,” Hodge said.

“I think if we start from a good solid defensive line, restrict the opposition from getting through, we can start punching through and score tries.

“We have worked hard at training and put ourselves under pressure with our passing.

“We have worked on that as much as everything else and I just see it all coming together at the right time of the season.”

The Raiders have certainly had the wood over the Knights this season.

That in itself is another driving factor.

“The boys are feeling pumped and they really want to beat these Raiders,” Hodge said.

“Because we have been getting progressively better each week we have been able to build on that positively and take a lot away from the games.

“Everyone is buying into the fact we can win.

“I think if it clicks together for us on the day, we will come away with a win and get to the grand final.”

The game kicks off at 1.30pm at Horsham, with a junior touch match at 3pm, followed by the Bulls v Jets clash at 4pm.