PLAY-OFF fringe-dwellers Newcastle will get a final chance to stake their claim as genuine contenders when they host the fourth-placed Storm on Sunday.
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The resurgent Knights are yet to beat a top-four team this season and the match against the defending NRL premiers will be their last regular season opportunity.

One of seven sides to have benefited from the luck of the NRL’s uneven draw, seventh-placed Newcastle (25 points) were allocated just five games against the Roosters (36), Rabbitohs (34), Sea Eagles (31) and Storm (31).

Those teams have occupied the top four spots for most of the season and, apart from the potential for a change of order among themselves in the last four rounds, will almost certainly hold those positions heading into the finals.

Two teams, the Bulldogs and Warriors, were scheduled two games against all four teams, yet the Knights, Broncos, Cowboys, Storm, Panthers, Dragons and Roosters had just five.

The Raiders, Titans and Tigers were one short of the full complement, with seven games each against the four most consistent teams of 2012. Manly and Souths had the maximum possible of six each against their fellow top-four dwellers, and the Sharks and Eels had six each.

Apart from being blanked 32-0 by Manly at Brookvale five months ago, the Knights have held their own in their three other games against the big four.

The most recent was a 28-12 home loss to the Roosters on July 28, and they were still in the hunt trailing 18-12 until the title favourites finished with two tries in the last seven minutes.

“We matched it with them today physically, which was important,” Knights coach Wayne Bennett said after that game. “It got away at the end, more with our poor execution. We just put ourselves under too much pressure and missed too many opportunities, but we can fix that up.”

It was a similar story at ANZ Stadium on June 1, when Newcastle gave as good as they got in a 25-18 loss to Souths in a game in which both teams were without their Origin representatives.

The closest the Knights have come to toppling a top-four team was at AAMI Park on June 16, when they led the Storm 14-10 deep into the second half only to concede a try to Billy Slater in the 69th minute for a 16-14 defeat.

“Sometimes you lose and you win, so I hope today was one of those days – what we got out of it as a team and we realise how good we can be,” Bennett said after that match. “We played some great footy. It was a wonderful football game, played in tremendous spirit by both teams, but we keep walking away with the effort but not any points at the moment.”

Since then, the Knights have lost just once – to the Roosters – in a six-game stretch that included away victories over the fifth-placed Bulldogs and sixth-placed Sharks.

The Storm have won their past six against the Knights but the past five were at their AAMI Park fortress. Melbourne’s last appearance showing at Hunter Stadium was on March 20, 2010, and the Storm won 20-14, but the Knights hold an overall 9-4 advantage in Newcastle.

Speaking after their last-gasp 18-14 victory over the Sharks last Saturday, which pushed them past Canberra (24) into seventh spot and within one of Cronulla (26), Bennett was buoyant about his team’s chances against the Storm.

“We go in there in a good shape and in a good mood because we’re playing gutsy, and they’ll compete for everything and we’ll compete for everything, so it will be a good test for us,” he said.

“We played them six or seven weeks ago and it was a big game . . . and we got beaten by two points. We just got run down at the end, so it will be interesting to see how we go this time.”

Centre Dane Gagai, whose two tries against Cronulla included the match winner, said the Knights had grown in confidence since pushing Melbourne all the way.

“Ever since we played that game the effort from the boys has been there the whole time . . . We’ve just got to execute a few things a bit better,” Gagai said.

“Since that Storm game, we’ve really taken . . . a bit of passion for the boys out of it and made sure we’re not letting each other down.”

The match review committee found Newcastle’s Kade Snowden and Cronulla’s Ben Pomeroy had no case to answer after both players were reported last Saturday.

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Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens says Raider Blake Ferguson has an ”eight-week” audition for a World Cup role, starting with a clash against one of the favourites to fill the job vacated by Justin Hodges’ season-ending Achilles injury.
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The Raiders face the Bulldogs at Canberra Stadium on Saturday, and Canterbury centre Josh Morris is one of the leading contenders to take Hodges’ spot.

While Sheens said it was too soon to comment on who would replace the veteran Queenslander in the Kangaroos line-up, he did say form over the final rounds of the NRL home-and-away season, along with finals, would be the deciding factor in who would partner Greg Inglis in the centres. The ninth-placed Raiders have four games left to qualify for the finals.

Morris and Sydney Rooster Michael Jennings appear to be the frontrunners to fill Hodges’ boots. But Ferguson made a stunning return from a six-week alcohol-related lay-off to score two tries in the Raiders’ loss to the Roosters at the weekend. Sheens will be looking to see whether the Raiders’ centre can continue that form for the rest of the year.

”I don’t want to comment yet on who could come in, but any player playing well is eligible,” he told Fairfax Media on Monday.

”The form over the remaining four rounds and then finals, the next four to eight weeks, will be the decisive factor in who plays in the World Cup.”

The Kangaroos coach said there were plenty of options for the World Cup in England and Wales in October and November. ”Both Morris and Jennings are both playing well at the moment,” Sheens said. ”There are plenty of options at centre, including [the Cowboys’] Brent Tate as well.”

Raiders centre Jarrod Croker had no doubt Ferguson could take his game to Test level.

”I think Fergo’s definitely ready [to play for Australia], he’s only one game back and we saw what he was like,” Croker said.

”But I don’t think anyone’s thinking about that at the moment, we’re just worried about the next week and the game coming ahead. But I’ve got no doubt if Fergo was given that jersey he’d be fine.”

Raiders coach David Furner said while Ferguson was fantastic at the weekend, Canberra players would have a better chance of earning national duty if the team made the finals.

”If he carries on with that form [then he’s a chance], but as a team we’ve got to strive to get into the semi-finals and that gives you the best chance as an individual to get into a representative side at the end of the year,” Furner said.

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As the Canberra Raiders hope young gun Anthony Milford will decide to stay with the club next season, they could be reliant on his decision-making against the Canterbury Bulldogs at Canberra Stadium on Saturday.
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Coach David Furner said on Monday that captain and playmaker Terry Campese was ”unlikely” to play against the Bulldogs after a collision with teammate David Shillington in the 28-22 loss to the Sydney Roosters on the weekend, raising the possibility of Milford taking his place.

Campese had scans on Monday afternoon and will see a specialist on Wednesday.

With clouds also over second-rower Joel Thompson (food poisoning) and workhorse Shaun Fensom (thumb), Furner said he would not know his final line-up until late in the week. Thompson was expected to be right for Saturday, but there was less confidence about Fensom.

The Raiders were confident Campese had not fractured his eye socket. The main concern is his eye, which was still closed when Furner visited him on Sunday.

”We’re just going to wait on the specialist on Wednesday and then make a decision,” Furner told Fairfax Media. ”At this stage, he’s probably unlikely.

”I’ll obviously name him and hope he’s right. It’s something you can’t take any risks on with the eye.”

Dragons-bound halfback Sam Williams (ankle) is still with the rehabilitation group and Saturday could come too soon for the 22-year-old’s return to first grade.

Which means Milford looks the most likely to cover for five-eighth Campese.

It would also pave the way for a recall for out-of-favour fullback Reece Robinson, who was omitted from the Roosters clash.

Youngster Mitch Cornish, who has been playing for Mounties in the NSW Cup, is not expected to get a call-up.

”There is a chance Tony goes into the halves, you’ve got young Mitch Cornish,” Furner said.

”Where Sam’s at, I’ll know a bit more tomorrow, so we’ve got some guys there that can certainly fill the role.”

Milford is seeking a release from his contract for next year to return home to Queensland to be closer to his father, Halo, who had a heart attack 18 months ago.

It has the Brisbane Broncos salivating at the chance to sign one of the NRL’s most promising juniors.

If he does wear the No.6 jersey, Milford will need to put the turmoil aside to focus on the game.

Raiders centre Jarrod Croker was confident Milford would have no problem doing exactly that.

”I haven’t asked him about it, I haven’t talked to him about it one bit, but as far as I’ve seen, Tony’s been his normal self around training,” he said.

”His training’s been fine, his attitude and him in general has been no different as far as I’m concerned. It hasn’t really affected him.”

Campese’s loss isn’t just as the playmaker, it’s also his leadership.

It’s an area the Raiders have had to cover regularly over the past three seasons because of his knee and groin injuries.

Croker felt the Raiders had a strong leadership group and would be able to cover any void left by their captain.

”Josh McCrone will stand up, I know he will, and myself included in the backs, myself and [Blake Ferguson] will have to step up the leadership there,” Croker said.

”Our forward pack is a massive part of our leadership group and they’re going to put their hands up and rip in.”

Furner was expecting to name an extended squad on Tuesday and a final line-up might not be known until game day.

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Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe on Monday said those upset by his disputed landslide election victory could “go hang”.
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The 89-year-old vowed never to let go of his victory as his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai lodged a petition in court challenging the election outcome.

“Those who were hurt by defeat can go hang if they so wish,” Mr Mugabe told thousands at a rally to honour heroes of the country’s liberation wars.

“Never will we go back on our victory,” he said in his first public address since the July 31 vote.

Mr Mugabe was declared the winner with 61 per cent of the ballots, against Mr Tsvangirai’s 34 per cent.

He insisted that the Zimbabwean people’s choice in government was clear.

“We are delivering democracy on a platter. We say take it or leave it, but the people have delivered democracy,” he said.

Mr Tsvangirai meanwhile vowed to expose “glaring evidence of the stolen vote” through a court bid.

His lawyers on Friday filed a petition at the Constitutional Court challenging the poll, which extended Mr Mugabe’s 33-year rule by another five years.

“All I can see is a nation in mourning over the audacity of so few to steal from so many,” he said in a statement.

But “the thief left so much evidence at the scene of crime as we shall expose in the people’s petition that we filed last week”.

The elections were to end a shaky power-sharing government formed by Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai to avoid a tip into conflict in the aftermath of a bloody run-off election in 2008.

Mr Tsvangirai’s defeat has relegated his Movement for Democratic Change back to the opposition benches.

Local observers have called the polls flawed and Western powers have raised serious doubts over the vote.

However, regional organisations the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) were less critical.

AFP

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Sri Lanka’s Muslim leaders closed down a new mosque in Colombo on Monday after attacks by a Buddhist mob revived simmering religious tensions and sparked US concern.
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The Sri Lanka Muslim Council said it had agreed to shut its mosque at Grandpass and move to an older place of worship which the government had earlier earmarked for demolition as part of the capital’s development.

“We have a compromise deal worked out last night,” council president N. M. Ameen told Agence France-Presse.

“The government will rescind the order acquiring the old mosque premises and will grant more land and help with renovations and improvements.

“From today, we are out of the new mosque.”

Buddhist-led mobs vandalised the new mosque, including pelting stones at the building on Saturday, wounding at least four people. Sporadic clashes also erupted on Sunday despite a heavy police presence in the neighbourhood.

The violence comes after Buddhist hardliners attacked several Muslim-run businesses outside Colombo in March, one of a series of incidents targeting the minority group.

The US embassy in Colombo has expressed concern at the latest violence and urged authorities to prosecute those responsible.

The US, which in March initiated a UN Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka over alleged war crimes against Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, also urged Colombo to ensure religious freedom.

Seventy per cent of Sri Lanka’s 20-million-strong population are Buddhists, while Muslims are the second-largest religious group, making up just under 10 per cent.

Buddhists had objected to the setting up of the new mosque near a Buddhist temple even though it was built to replace the older mosque earmarked for demolition in line with city works.

A night curfew was lifted at dawn on Monday, a police spokesman said, adding that the situation was calm and no fresh incidents had been reported since the government announced the mosque’s closure on Sunday night.

The government held lengthy talks with Muslim and Buddhist leaders on Sunday and announced what Technology Minister Champika Ranawaka described as a “just solution” acceptable to all sides.

“Through a just solution, we have now peacefully solved the issue,” the minister said.

As part of the deal, Buddhists agreed to cut down a Banyan tree, a key Buddhist symbol, that had overshadowed the old mosque and had originally prevented its expansion, residents said.

Hundreds of police, including elite Special Task Force commandos, guarded the area on Monday as workers used power tools to bring down the tree, also located in the Grandpass area.

AFP

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