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Knights v Dragons: Cogger, Buhrer step up; Dufty to start

The Knights would love to finish their own season on a high while also ensuring the Dragons head into their finals campaign with five losses in their final six games.

It might be easier said than done without Kalyn Ponga, given that the Sharks put 38 on the Knights last week with the young gun missing.

But at least Newcastle managed to score 12 points, which was 12 more than the slumping Dragons in their embarrassing 38-0 thrashing from the Bulldogs.

Paul McGregor has a battle on his hands to get his team believing itself again or they will swiftly exit the playoffs.

Key match-up: They were former State of Origin combatants and the duel between halves Mitchell Pearce and Ben Hunt will weigh heavily on which team comes up trumps on Saturday afternoon. Hunt has been under fire from critics lately and needs to get back to his best in a hurry.

Knights v Dragons - Round 25

For the Knights to win: Ponga's absence leaves the usual big load of responsibility on Pearce's shoulders, but the Knights are up against a team low on confidence and should be fired up for a big finale in front of their adoring fans.

For the Dragons to win: Theories abound as to why the Dragons have hit the wall again with the finals just around the corner. Are they burned out? Did they peak too early? Has Paul McGregor made enough adjustments on the run? It's impossible to solve but the Dragons need some on-field leaders to get everybody on the same page and believing in each other again.

Knights Stat Attack: With no finals to strive for, the Knights need other incentives in their final hit-out of the season. As it stands they have the worst defensive record in the NRL, conceding 583 points. But if they can knuckle down in defence and Manly (574) get rolled by Brisbane, the Knights can avoid finishing with the most points conceded.

Dragons Stat Attack: They haven't had much attacking success lately but the Dragons still lead the NRL in tackle breaks (843), with Canberra second (831) and Manly third (824).

And another thing: The Knights finished second in the 2002 NRL season before losing 26-22 to the seventh-placed Dragons in week one of the finals. They were dumped out the back door the following week with a 38-12 thrashing from the Roosters, who went on to beat the Warriors 30-8 in the grand final. The Dragons didn't make it to week three, bowing out with a 40-24 loss to Cronulla.

Newcastle Knights v St George Illawarra Dragons, Saturday 3pm at McDonald Jones Stadium

Knights: Nathan Brown has made one game-day alteration, promoting Pasami Paulo to the bench in place of JJ Felise. Jack Cogger replaces Connor Watson (groin) at five-eighth, with Kalyn Ponga's season officially over. Lachlan Fitzgibbon (concussion) is also done for the year with Jamie Buhrer taking his starting second row spot. Jacob Lillyman is out, replaced on the bench by JJ Felise. Luke Yates was omitted 24 hours prior to kick-off, while Brock Lamb and Felise were cut an hour before kick-off.

Dragons: The Dragons will line up 1-17 as named on Tuesday. Zac Lomax replaces Euan Aitken (hamstring) at centre. Jason Nightingale (elbow) is out, with fullback Matt Dufty back in the run-on side and Jai Field called up to the bench, while Blake Lawrie replaces Jacob Host on the bench. Luciano Leilua has been named on the bench with Leeson Ah Mau in the starting side despite the pair being switched on game day in previous weeks. Pat Herbert and Hame Sele were the last players dropped an hour before kick-off, while Reece Robson and Host were cut on Friday afternoon.

Head-to-head: Played 36; Dragons 25 wins, Knights 11 wins
Previous result: Dragons won 30-12 at WIN Stadium in round 4
Points per game: Knights 17.4; Dragons 21.5
Points conceded per game: Knights 25.3; Dragons 19.9
Televised: Live on Fox League

Petero Civoniceva's prediction: The Dragons' fall from grace has been remarkable and the players will be hurting after their own fans booed them off the field last Sunday. What looked like a comfortable run home against sides outside the eight has turned into a nightmare and the Knights will be primed to inflict more misery in front of a massive Newcastle crowd this weekend.

Tip: Knights by 4