Big Willie and SBW to lock horns once again
IN THE obligatory on-field celebratory team photo following the Bulldogs grand final win in 2004, Willie Mason is standing right at the back with his arm around a fresh-faced kid named Sonny Bill Williams.
It was a case of the old dog teaching the young dog new tricks.
Nine years later, at Alliance Stadium tonight, the pair will line-up against each other for the Knights and Roosters respectively, as the old bull and the not-so-young bull.
And, as the Roosters endeavour to convert their minor premiership in to a grand final appearance, all those tricks Big Willie taught SBW as an 18-year old NRL rookie will be trotted out, just as they were when the teams last met in round 20.
That afternoon Williams felled Mason with an illegal shoulder charge, stood over him and screamed a four-word expletive that questioned the courage of his big mate.
And according to both they remain close friends, despite big Willie suffering a fractured eye socket from the incident and SBW suspended for two weeks.
While 33-year-old Mason is too shrewd to fall for the three-card trick of being baited by Williams or other members of this brutal Roosters pack, he won't be backing down tonight.
And he has fellow hard heads Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith in his corner to come to his aid should the match explode in fireworks.
The mature version of Mason, who may well be making his final NRL appearance, played down the confrontation with his Bulldogs protege.
"It's just exciting to be playing the Roosters again. That game back in July was pretty brutal," he said.
"The Roosters forwards have been the most dominant pack in the comp and the most consistent. We have a lot of respect for them, especially Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sonny Bill, and I'll probably come up against Jared more as Sonny plays wider.
"But Sonny can play tough, and with skill."
Waerea-Hargreaves, who has not played for three weeks, is the key to the Roosters dominating.
He has been the form NRL prop in 2013 and his quick play-the-balls to will-o-the-wisp dummy half Jake Friend repeatedly puts the Roosters on the front foot.
But it is their defence that has the Roosters the $1.35 favourites.
In 25 games they have averaged a stingy 13 points against them, and have held six opponents to nil - a 105-year NRL record.
A late-season charge, including successive finals wins over last year's grand finalists, has the Knights in form at the opportune time. Their major plus, however, is experience on the big stage.
Coach Wayne Bennett has been involved in more finals games - 53 - than any of the other three coaches this weekend have NRL games.
And six of his charges have experienced finals pressure before, having previously won grand finals.
The Knights were forced to make one late change yesterday when winger James McManus was ruled out with an ankle injury. Kevin Naiqama will replace him.