Last night’s game between the Broncos and the Roosters was so packed with drama that tonight’s match between the Knights and the Bulldogs initially seemed destined to be a disappointment. What a great surprise, then, to be treated with one of the most entertaining games that either of these teams have played all season – a terrific three-act drama which started with Newcastle resurgent, then shifting to the Canterbury young guns taking centre stage, and ended up with the Knights almost resplendent in the final minutes.
From the outset, it felt as if this had the potential to be a turning-point for both the Knights and the Dogs. On the one hand, it was Newcastle’s first Friday night game in close to three years. More importantly, perhaps, as half time drew near, it looked to be the first time that the Knights might manage to keep the opposing team to nil over the first half since Round 10 in 2014. On the other hand, the Bulldogs have lost their last two matches, meaning that this also threatened to be the first time in the modern NRL era – since 1998 – that Canterbury hadn’t scored in three consecutive opening halves.
With the stakes pretty high for both teams, the Knights really started to apply pressure towards the end of the first stanza, in what initially appeared to be a critical turning-point in their journey back from 2016. As one of the key momentum-builders in the Newcastle side, it was fitting that Nathan Ross almost put down the first try of the game at the six-minute mark, only for the Bunker to discern a knock-on and put the Knights back down to zero once again. Fifteen minutes later, Ross made up for it with a brilliantly acrobatic try that saw him literally spin in the air after a low tackle from Marcelo Montoya only to land ball-first in the left corner.
More on Montoya in a moment, because it’s worth briefly noting here that both Ross’ disallowed and successful try were set up by Trent Hodkinson. While his kicking game still requires some finessing, Hodkinson nevertheless put in one of his most emphatic presences on the field this season, at least in terms of issuing order and organising the other players. People tend to give Hodko a bad wrap when he’s below form and kind of ignore him when he’s playing competently – a truncated Origin career will do that to do – but tonight he was frequently where he needed to be, both in terms of leadership and positional play.
However, if this initially seemed to be a Newcastle comeback narrative, Knights fans were left with their hearts in their mouths after Brenko Lee scored his first try for the Bulldogs three seconds before the halftime siren. It was a brilliant piece of play that culminates a series of intercepts and dropped balls that had seen the action zigzagging from one end of the field to the other in the final three minutes of the first stanza. Taking advantage of the chaos, Lee made his mark and prevented the Bulldogs making unwanted history with three consecutive zero-point first halves.
If anything, Lee replaced that possibility with a different kind of historical turning-point, since up until this moment he was the only member of the Bulldogs backline who hadn’t yet scored a try. With Matt Frawley putting down his own first try for Canterbury-Bankstown less than a minute after halftime, it suddenly felt as if the focus had shifted from the up-and-coming Knights to the up-and-coming Dogs – and, specifically, to the younger and newer members of the Canterbury-Bankstown lineup.
After all, Frawley was only playing his second game for the club, and yet his performance only got better, as he compounded his try with a brilliant try assist that saw Brent Morris putting down the easiest four points of the night. Having ran half the length of the field to score after half-time, he set Morris up with an elegant pass that showed just how dangerous he could be if he ever takes on a place in the halves for good. Opting for a spin-free ball, it was a classic, old-school pass – clean, perfectly timed and poised as elegantly and symmetrically as the harbour bridge, clearing a whole swarm of Newcastle defenders in the process.
More than an argument for the Bulldogs’ young guns, it felt like an argument for Frawley as a permament fixture in the halves. At the very least, he was playing as if he were a permanent fixture in the halves, and that level of conviction was just what Canterbury-Bankstown needed to hold their own against such a determined Newcastle side. By the same token, Marcelo Montoya managed to get in two tries over second half, including the final try of the night, which occurred as close to the final siren as Brenko Lee’s had come to the halftime siren, sealing the deal for a new generation of Dogs players.
Yet things momentarily seemed as if they were about to take on a new dimension with Dane Gagai starting what initially appeared to be a third and even more dramatic act to the drama. Throughout the game, Gagai had been outstanding and – even more than Ross and Hodkinson – the driving engine behind the Newcastle push. No player can generate momentum in quite the same way as Gagai, thanks in part to the terrific combination of speed, dexterity and defensive aptitude that can allow him to make line break after line break and bring in try after try when the conditions are right.
Tonight may not have been one of his most impressive games on paper, but his consistency and momentum underpinned the team as a whole. At the twenty-sixth minute he managed a beautiful run and a brilliant offload, while at the 32nd minute he ploughed through five Bulldogs defenders to make it to within ten metres of the Canterbury line. In both cases, he was let down by Ken Sio, who was unable to pick up the pass in the first case and dragged into touch on the second.
Clearly, Sio was unable to match Gagai’s energy, and from then on the triple-scoring Maroon started to go for it on his own. In one of the most spectacular moments of the game, he dragged five Bulldogs defenders across the line and managed to hold onto the Steeden for a good ten seconds before – possibly – grounding it, although an obstruction ruling rendered the point moot, despite an initial try call from the referee.
No single image epitomised the gutsy Newcastle effort over the game as a whole than this spectacle of Gagai hanging on for dear life, so it felt doubly cathartic when he finally brought home the second try for the Knights late in the second half. Snagging a deft pass from Brock Lamb, he charged down the right side and was almost pushed out of the field of play by the Morris brothers, only for a combination of a brilliant fend and deft footwork to allow him to get it over the line. Given the part Gagai had played in the game as a whole, it felt more like his third try than his second, and signaled yet another turning-point, this time in Newcastle’s favour.
Combined with the unlikeliest of conversions from Hodkinson, it suddenly felt as it the Knights would win it – had to win it – as the momentum Gagai had been pumping into the game all evening started to really percolate out amongst his team mates. When Sione Matu’utia smashed over minutes later, then, it felt like a foregone conclusion, just as the subsequent no try ruling felt like the end of Newcastle’s dream. Sure enough, Montoya cemented the Bulldogs effort and the Knights’ brief taste of victory faded away.
Still, Newcastle have a lot to be proud about. Last season, they found it difficult to muster momentum more than anything else, so the fact that they gave the Dogs such a run for their money is a step in the right direction. Similarly, Canterbury-Bankstown shouldn’t be coming away from this feeling complacent. For one thing, it’s a worry that Montoya, Lee and Frawley were able to put in such a better game than Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye, despite a few impressive runs from Mbye and a few moments of inspiration from Reynolds.
By the same token, Brad Abbey continues to be a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he’s great with footwork and kick timing, but he seems to wilt a bit under tackles. In any case, he was sent off in the second half after an injury, and replaced by Josh Morris. With the Bulldogs now down to their third option for fullback, they’re going to seriously need to think about their options and gameplay when they take on the Rabbitohs next Friday. Sure, they may be playing seven out of their next eight matches at ANZ, and, sure, they may have won tonight, but the competition was too close for either team to really focus on anything but hunger for victory next week.
[Note: a version of this piece was also published at The Roar]