The Knights gave the Dragons a run for their money in the first of two Sunday afternoon games in southern Sydney, debuting Nathan Ross at fullback in the most emphatic way possible. Before the game began, Michael Ennis predicted it would end with golden point, and while that might initially have felt like a bit of an outlier opinion, things came pretty close, with a 32-28 scoreline that included five unanswered tries from the visitors at the end of the first stanza.
With Jason Nightingale getting a double for his 99th and 100th tries, Nathan Ross following up with his own double, and both Nightingale and Ross then making it a hat trick, it turned out to be a more spectacular game than many fans might have imagined. At first, however, it looked as if the spectacle would all go the Dragons’ way, with Nightingale putting down the first points five minutes in, off the back of a series of deft, clean passes across to the left wing, culminating with Tim Lafai choosing to funnel the Steeden over to his winger, rather than running the risk of grounding it himself.
It was clear, professional football from the Dragons, and for a moment it looked as if this might be enough to bring the Knights to their knees. Given that the ball had passed through the hands of nearly every St. George player a couple of tackles before, Nightingale’s four-pointer also felt like a team try, building a sense of collective spirit necessary to compensate for Paul Vaughan having been led off the field with a calf tear two minutes before – a pretty big loss considering that Jack De Belin was also on the sideline. It was even more rousing, then, to see Nightingale go over once again off the restart, as Widdop chipped it forward for Nightingale to put down his 100th try at home, in what felt destined to be a Dragons match for the history books.
So it was, in a way, but not before the Knights gave their hosts a serious scare with their best single stretch of football all season, putting down five tries in fifteen minutes. The first came twenty minutes in, after a quick play-the-ball from Lachlan Fitzgibbon set Nathan Ross up for a deft twist-and-spin through Josh Dugan, Nene Macdonald and Gareth Widdop. Getting down low just in time to pivot around and plant the ball over the line, Ross channelled brute strength and nimble dexterity in his own inimitable way, before going over again three minutes later off a deft short inside pass from Jaelen Feeney.
Another three minutes and Fitzgibbon stepped into the spotlight, slamming right through Dugan and Widdop to put down four points of his own, in a great sequel to his setup for Ross. It was a particularly satisfying moment for Newcastle given that Dane Gagai had finally broken through the line on the previous set, only for Lafai to commit what appeared to be a professional foul in preventing him reaching the line. However, due to discrepancies between on-field and bunker perspectives (only enhanced by the lack of a satisfactory camera angle), it didn’t result in Lafai being sent to the bin, as would normally occur.
It was a strange moment of freefall – and hard to know which team had gained the momentum – not least because we were in an odd space between on field and bunker jurisdiction, so it was to Newcastle’s credit that they managed to take control of the narrative again a couple of seconds later and send Fitzgibbon across. Several minutes later, as if by clockwork, Ross went over again for his first career hat trick, off the back of a dropped ball from Hame Sele, running sixty metres to plant the Steeden under the posts in a mad dash that all but erased the impact of Nightingale’s opening double.
It was an extraordinary comeback after being down 10-0 to the Dragons in the opening ten minutes, but the Knights weren’t done yet, with Brendan Elliot putting down four more after St. George failed to contest a damaging high ball from Brock Lamb. Bouncing backwards and up again, the Steeden landed in just the right position for Sione Mata’utia to scoot across and get it to Elliot, deftly avoiding a whole host of potential Knights receivers who had rendered themselves offside in the chaos.
As ecstatic as this moment was, however, it would turn out to be the last points put down by the Knights, with the Red V managing a comeback over the second stanza that was almost as impressive as the original Newcastle surge. For the remainder of the first half, however, this was Newcastle’s game – and while they may not have managed to sustain it, this incredible string of tries was the surest proof yet that Nathan Brown’s patient, long-term strategy for the Knights is starting to bear fruit.
As it was, a full seven minutes of the second stanza had elapsed before the Dragons could turn the tide, when a deft short grubber from Widdop set up Joel Thompson to crash over. It was a good start, but some kind of consolidation was needed, and sure enough Josh Dugan charged through the Newcastle line a couple of minutes later, carrying four or five Knights defenders with him before grimly slamming the Steeden down over the line.
There could be no better symbol for the team as a whole, who had come back after half time anxious to grind in and plough out the point differential. While Jacob Host may have dropped the ball on the previous set, Dugan’s performance – clearly channeling his trysaving tackle last Wednesday in its Origin-level grit – made it clear that the Red V were determined to maintain their momentum, despite any incidental errors or momentary lapses in judgment, until the bitter end. If the opening act was a testament to the risks of peaking too soon, St. George decisively undid any complacency with Dugan’s four-pointer and ground down for one of the toughest comebacks of their season so far.
It was an incredible moment, then, when Nightingale crossed over five minutes later for his 101st caree try. Once again, it came off a great pass from Widdop, who straightened up the play to draw Dane Gagai in from the line and then flipped the Steeden over to his winger to put it to ground. Cancelling out Ross’ hattrick much as Ross’ hattrick had seemed to cancel out Nightingale’s double, the sense of momentum and excitement was contagious, with even the Knights players recognising something special had just occurred, and a new level of challenge had been set.
It didn’t hurt, either than this was Nightingale’s third hat trick of the season, following on from his tries against the Tigers in Round 5 and the Storm in Round 9, nor that Widdop’s subsequent conversion finally brought the score to 28-28. Ten minutes later, Kurt Mann put down the final points of the afternoon, off the back of a series of repeat sets and an unfortunate moment when Feeley knocked on immediately after cleaning up the St. George high ball. It only took a hop and a skip through Peter Mata’utia and Sam Mataora for Mann to put the Dragons ahead for the first time since the opening of the game.
Finally, the Dragons had finally managed to answer the Knights’ five unanswered tries with five unanswered tries of their own. For the first and last ten minutes of the game they were dominant, and between those bookends an incredible ten tries had been put down in total. For all the agony Newcastle fans must have felt, then, they should be proud at having kept one of the top eight teams to such a tight finish, and will be looking to capitalise on that incredible first half when they take on the Wests Tigers at home next week.