Saturday afternoon’s game was always going to be an important one for the Knights, who had lost to the Tigers the round before, and were looking to make the most of a Broncos outfit missing Darius Boyd, Corey Oates, Josh McGuire, Matt Gillett and Kodi Nikorima. Yet while they might have hit a sweet spot towards the end of the first half, this turned out to be one of the biggest momentum-builders for Brisbane in the lead up to finals footy, as the visitors managed to rack up two competition points with a depleted squad at an away venue.
Jordan Kahu put down the first points, off the back of a deft kick from Ben Hunt, jumping four or five feet higher than Chanel Mata’utia, taking control of the Steeden and then crashing over the line a single movement. From a distance, you could almost have imagined that it was a game of Rugby and that the Knights defenders had been lifting Kahu up to catch the ball, so long did he seem to hang in the air before gaining possession.
The try was all the more frustrating for Newcastle in that it came nearly half an hour in. After twenty-eight minutes of trying to score points, it was clear that whichever team got on the scoreboard first would have a distinct advantage. Given the Knights’ problems with finishing over the course of the year, and their tendency to devolve in the second stanza, it didn’t look good to have nothing down with only ten minutes to go. Hodkinson, in particular, seemed visibly agitated, since he hadn’t been able to make good on his fifth-tackle kicks as much as he might have liked, despite apparently devoting much of his training schedule to them over the previous week.
The home crowd breathed a sigh of relief, then, when Sione Mata’utia put down the first Knights try a mere four minutes later. To make things even better, it came off a pair of beautiful passes from Brock Lamb and Hodkinson, who came right up to the Broncos line, forcing Ben Hunt to commit, before a deft short pass to Mata’utia allowed the second rower to scoot through the defence for the most elegant try of the evening right beneath the posts.
It’s hard to say what was better for the crowd – seeing Mata’uia score, or seeing Lamb and Hodkinson gelling in the halves – but they didn’t have time to consider, with Danny Levi scoring another try on the restart, thanks to a scintillating line break and short ball from Nathan Ross. It was a worthy sequel to Ross’ enhanced confidence at fullback against the Dogs the previous week, while Levi also had a chance to put some demons to rest after a series of escalating and uncharacteristic errors during Josh Reynolds’ final game at Belmore.
All of a sudden, then, the Knights had regained control of the narrative – Levi and Hodkinson had both bounced back after fairly spotty performances the week before, and Ross had been given another opportunity to flex his muscles in the no. 1 jersey. Two tries had been scored within four minutes of each other, and both tries had been grounded right at the posts, making it a foregone conclusion that Hodko would add the extras, a spectacle that always rouses Newcastle spirits.
As it turned out, however, the Knights would only score twice more, while the Broncos were just starting to get into gear. It’s become something of a commonplace in commentary circles to observe that Newcastle can’t finish out a game, and often seems like a bit of a redundant observation anyway, given how much else they’ve had to contend with as they rebuild their club from the ground up. Still, if there was ever an instance of the disparity between the Knights in the first and second stanzas of a game, then this was it, with Brisbane largely dominating the second half despite fronting a depleted team, and the Knights’ stunning resurgence just making their final capitulation all the more disappointing.
The comeback started with a try one minute into the second stanza, after Joe Wardle kicked at the end of the first set and the Steeden ricocheted off the player no team ever wants near their fifth tackle options – Jimmy the Jet. Roberts’ first moment of inspiration was to avoid making a play at the ball, despite the fact that it almost hit him square on the chest, holding up his hands to avoid a knock on with a dexterity and elegance that only became fully apparent in slow motion. From there, he was able to regather it and outrun the Knights more thoroughly than he has outrun any other team this season, with Chanel Mata’utia unable to even come close to catching him before he scored right beside the posts.
A minute later Kahu had added the extras and it was 12-12, with the Broncos clearly pumped to continue their momentum as dramatically as the Knights had built on Mata’utia’s opening try. They didn’t have to wait any longer, either, with Tautau Moga grounding the third Broncos try four minutes later off the back of a set that Moga himself spearheaded with a near-line break that was only brought to ground with a terrific tackle – probably a trysaving tackle – from the ever-reliable Dane Gagai.
From there, the Broncos danced around inside the twenty for a bit, running the Knights ragged until Sam Thaiday managed to slam through the defence, hold out the ball with one hand over the try line, but instead of grounding it opt for a one-handed harbour bridge pass that miraculously found Moga right in time for the burly centre to bookend one of the strongest Brisbane sets of the second half. Watching the replay, it was incredible that Thaiday hadn’t chosen to score – he was no further from the line than Nathan Cleary during his second try the night before – and he had much more bulk and momentum behind him.
In a way, though, Thaiday’s decision made Moga’s four-pointer feel even more momentous, since it was almost as if the Broncos had scored twice, surging forward with the momentum of twelve points rather than six once Kahu put it through the posts again. It felt almost inevitable, then, when Anthony Milford crossed over towards the end of the next set, for the fourth Broncos try and their third in ten minutes.
Once again, Thaiday was the try assister, but this time he put in a smore conventional play, sensing enough torpor in the middle of the Newcastle ruck to stick his nose through and send the ball to Joe Ofahengaue, who offloaded to Milford at just the right moment. From there, Milf danced and darted his way through a few wayward Newcastle hands, before running under the posts to set up Kahu for yet another easy conversion. In ten minutes, Brisbane had gone from half the Knights score to double the Knights score, and it was clear that Newcastle had to put down points next to have any chance of remaining in the game.
As it turned out, that’s just what they did, with Chanel Mata’utia and Gagai landing two tries in quick succession to keep things interesting until the very end. Mata’utia’s four points came immediatel after Milford had crossed over, and went some way to undoing the momentum of Brisbane’s magnificent hat trick – all the more so in that it allowed Wardle a bit of closure after having set up Roberts’ devastating run in the first half. This time, the big second rower was at the end of a fifth-tackle kick, rather than dishhing one out, as Hunt booted the ball across the field only for Wardle to jump above the Broncos backline to regain possession and pass it back to Hodkinson.
In another one of the displays of dexterity that made this such a stirring game from Hodkinson, the ex-Bulldog quickly got the ball out to Sione Mata’utia, who sent it acrss to his brother in turn. In possibly the clutch play of the game, Chanel smashed the Steeden down in the left corner moments before skidding into touch, setting up Hodkinson for his most challenging conversion of the night so far. Once he had put it through the posts, the Knights were within a converted try of Brisbane, and suddenly back in the game more emphatically than anyone would have expected in the moments after Milford had scored.
If Roberts, Moga and Milford’s hat tricks had been great footy spectacle, then Gagai provided one of the greatest moments of the Newcastle season eight minutes later, putting the Knights ahead off the back of a stunning pass from Hodkinson, who ran straight at the line – and steeled himself for a brutal tackle – in order to get the ball across to Gagai at just the right moment. It was the very opposite of a hospital pass, as Hodko put in one of his most courageous moves of the season in order to ensure that Gagai could move with ease.
As it was, however, Gagai still slammed at the line with enough energy and intensity to feel as if he were still playing Origin. What Hodkinson’s pass did, however, was to provide him with the split second needed to gather his thoughts and organise his play, which he did by twisting almost 360 degrees around Jonus Pearson’s low tackle before grounding the Steeden miliseconds before the Broncos winger lost contact. So gymnastic was it that you could have forgiven Gagai for fumbling the ball, but he hung onto the bitter end, for a try that was also Origin-like in its grit and determination.
While Hodkinson may not have managed the subsequent conversion, his pass to Gagai nevertheless made this try feel like the apex of his comeback, over the course of the game, to the form he was showing before his recent decline induced Nathan Brown to give him a break from the Newcastle NRL squad. You could tell that the crowd knew it as well, cheering for their returning halfback as much as their Origin star – and, all in all, this was probably one of the most hopeful and exuberant few minutes of the Newcastle season; a vision of what discipline, hard work and belief might achieve for them in the reconstruction years to come.
At one level, that made it all the more disappointing when Brisbane answered with two more tries of their own, especially because both of these four-pointers were quite spectacular. The first was from Korbin Sims at the sixty-ninth minute, with the help of a terrific inside pass from Benji Marshall, who managed to elude Hodkinson, Ross and Sione Mata’utia to get the ball across to his big prop. The second was from Pearson, who made up for letting Gagi through by making the most of a beautiful kick from Hunt that saw him plough through an imminent combined tackle from Gagai and King before they had a chance to fully form it. All he had to do was grab the Steeden and leapi ahead of the Newcastle defence to ground it with only four minutes left on the clock.
At the same time, however, this felt like a hopeful game for Newcastle, even if it was their most disappointing disparity between first and second half performances across the 2017 season so far. With Hodkinson back on board, Levi recovering from the match against the Bulldogs, Gagai on fire after Origin, Ross acclimatising to fullback, and the Mata’utias syncing well, the Knights had a lot to be proud of. More importantly, perhaps, they’d experienced the runner’s high, and sense of hope, that comes when a win is genuinely in sight, and that’s the kind of experience every team needs when rebuilding morale and culture.