ROUND 20: Sydney Roosters v. Newcastle Knights (Allianz Stadium, 21/7/17)
The Roosters have come away with a win over a surprisingly spirited Newcastle side, buoyed in part by the arrival of Shaun Kenny-Dowall on the wing for his debut game against his old club. The beginning of the second half, in particular, saw the Knights keep Sydney City to only a 12-4 lead, with both sides grinding it out in a deadlock that was only broken after Daniel Tupou put down what some will surely come to regard as one of the more contentious tries of the 2017 season, following an apparent knock-on from Latrell Mitchell.
Things started off well for the Knights, with the Mata’utia brothers putting in a terrific combined game, and the visitors gaining three successive goal-line dropouts in the first seven minutes, until a knock-on from Brock Lamb returned possession to the Roosters. From there, each team put in a series of fairly workmanlike sets, with Sydney City playing a slightly slower game than the Knights. Something had to give, and it did with a spectacular set piece from the Roosters to get the game going – some quick movement up the side of the field that initially seemed set to pay dividends in the left wing following a cut-out pass from Luke Keary to Tupou.
As well executed as it was, however, the pass came a little early for the big winger to storm ahead and get ito to ground, with Tupou sending the ball back inside, where Mitchell Pearce put in a bravura kick under pressure. Even with the ball coming off the side of his boot, it still managed to land, pitch-perfect, in the opposite corner, where Blake Ferguson leapt up to catch it uncontested, with the Newcastle defence nowhere in sight. Admittedly, Peter Mata’utia rushed in with a low tackle, but by that stage his pressure could only add momentum to Fergo’s movement, with the Roosters winger stretching out a hand to plant the Steeden over the line as elegantly and emphatically as he ever has.
From Keary’s cut-out pass, to Pearce’s kick, to Fergo’s catch, and, finally, Latrell Mitchell’s conversion, it was like a greatest-hits package from the Chooks, and an object lesson in how to ferry the ball from one side of the field to the other under pressure. No surprise, then, that it took the edge off the Knights’ opening burst, with Sydney City remaining fairly dominant over the following minutes, and Fergo himself crashing over again ten mintues later only for Keary to be called out for a forward pass. Still, if Ferguson had been a bit deeper, he would have been in for another four-pointer, as the Roosters had once again managed to get right to the Newcastle goal line without any really convincing defence.
As the twentieth minute drew close, Pearce put in yet another brilliant kick and, once again, the Knights didn’t really contest it, with Chanel Mata’utia only just managing to punch it onto the dead ball line before the Roosters got there first. On the next set, Sydney City redoubled their efforts, with Connor Watson almost going over, only for Dane Gagai to respond with a terrific trysaving tackle to hold him up. At the end of this set, however, Pearce grubbered just a little too long, gifting the Knights seven tackles.
With a succession of further penalties, and another seven tackle set, it finally looked as if the momentum might be shifting in Newcastle’s favour, but their sustained period of possession and field position ended quite disappointingly – with a mistimed dummy-and-pass from Trent Hodkinson that caught Nathan Ross by surprise, resulting in the Newcastle fullback coughing up the ball and Pearce scooping it up just as quickly. To make things even worse, Hodko took out his frustration by pulling Pearce to ground for a second time after the tackle was complete, granting the Roosters a penalty and the field position they needed to put down a second try. Keary, rather than Pearce, now provided the magic, sending the ball out to Tupou once again, and setting his left winger up for another epic run up the side of the field.
This time, however, the ex-Rabbitoh was waiting on the inside to collect the ball, where he dummied and ran right between Gagai and Danny Levi, before coming to earth just in front of the line, where he managed to roll over and ground the ball all in one movement – and directly beneath the posts to boot. From his initial pass out to Tupou, to his roll and tumble, it was probably one of Keary’s nimblest and deftest moments of the 2017 season, and a terrific rejoinder to Pearce’s dexterity earlier in the game, with Mitchell adding the extras once again to bring the Roosters to 12-0.
It was starting to feel like a familiar story for Newcastle, who have struggled so much with first half play over the course of the year. What they needed was a fairy tale formation – and they got it a few minutes later, when Shaun Kenny-Dowall crossed over on debut to put down his first ever points against his former club. As a piece of play, it was fairly straightforward, with Lamb passing to Ross, and Ross then sending it on to Gagai, who grubbered forward for his new winger to plant it over the line as effortlessly as he ever has in Sydney City colours.
Only the fact of the ball ricocheting off Joe Wardle’s back on its way from Lamb to Ross felt as if it might be a cause for contention, but the replay showed that it has clearly moved backwards, clearing up SKD for one of the most rousing Newcastle tries of the year – possibly the most rousing Newcastle try of the year. Yet there perhaps also something vaguely dispiriting about the fact that the first – and what would be the only – Knights try was put down by a player who had been playing for the opposite team only last week, with the home crowd cheering for SKD almost as loudly as they’d cheered for Fergo. Still, you couldn’t underestimate the motivation for the Knights either, who went into the sheds determined to make their mark on the second half.
Deadlock set in when the players returned to the field, as both teams fielded set after set without any points being put down. It was a period defined by a pair of penalties from Victor Radley, who returned possession to the Knights early in the second half following a late tackle on Brock Lamb. As it turned, out, the Knights squandered their opportunity, with Mitchell intercepting, making a line break and then busting through several tackles and showcasing some astonishing footwork to get the Steeden two-thirds up the field before the Newcastle defence brought him down.
From there, both teams moved up and down the field, with Hodkinson opting for a few early kicks just to get the ball out of Newcastle’s twenty, and Ross moving from strength to strength as fullback under the pressure of high balls from Pearce, Keary and Mitchell, as well as some brilliant footwork at the 55th minute to get back into the field of play when three Roosters defenders seemed to have trapped him in the corner with no chance of escape. Throughout this period, several events seemed poised to break the deadlock, the first of which was another penalty from Radley for holding on too long in the tackle. It was followed by a great little grubber from Levi, which was almost grounded by Lamb, only for Watson to show some of the quickest thinking of the game to get there first and ensure that it was only a goal line dropout.
Once again, however, the Roosters regained possession, with Watson intercepting the Steeden right on their goal line and then breaking through their defensive line, as did Ferguson a tackle later, only for Levi to intercept the ball in turn, crowning a particularly strong night for the young Newcastle hooker. Still, the deadlock remained, until a massive tackle from Ferguson knocked Chanel Mata’utia out cold, leaving both teams with some breathing space to reconsider the game. When they came back, they both felt revivified – but especially the Knights, with the Mata’utias clearly affected by their brother’s injury, and SKD showing his first really emphatic gesture of leadership in Newcastle colours by barking orders at his teammates as Chanel was led off the field.
As it turned out, however, the Knights returned to the game with a bit less discipline, as Gagai lost the Steeden shortly after under the pressure of a tackle from Keary, and Ross had a howler at the end of a particularly bad set, apparently not realising that he’d arrived at the last tackle. As much as the spectacle of Mata’utia being taken off the field might have roused the Knights, it appeared to have debilitated them as well, and things just got worse when the Roosters broke the deadlock by scoring off the back of a fairly contentious piece of play from Mitchell. It started with a great kick from Pearce, which Mitchell collected and then sent on to Ryan Matterson, who kicked in turn for Tupou to speed ahead of both Gagai and SKD to ground the Steeden just in front of the dead ball line.
Clearly, this was a galvanising moment for the Roosters, not simply because it culminated a surprisingly long deadlock against the Knights, but because Tupou had clearly been thirsty for a run-and-score try all night. Yet as the uncertain look on Tupou’s face attested as well, this try was far from a sure thing, since in the process of collecting the ball Mitchell had dropped it while facing backwards, recollecting it twice in what looked almost certain to be a knock-on, but for some reason wasn’t called that way by the Bunker. In what will probably come to be seen as one of the more controversial decisions of the 2017 season, the Roosters were awarded the four points, and the Knights were clearly dispirited by the result, even if the Chooks didn’t manage to add the extras.
From there, things started to seem a bit more familiar for the Knights, who tried and tried to attack their line but just couldn’t quite get across, with Pearce putting in a heroic trysaving tackle to bring Luke Yates to ground just before the line. As often happens when a team coasts ahead too, the halves were able to control the game quite seamlessly, with Pearce putting in a terrific pass to send Isaac Liu over the line a couple of minutes later. While Tupou’s try might have felt iffy, Liu’s four-pointer had an air of authority and finality about it, not least because he was playing his 100th game in Roosters colours. Add to that the fact that he last scored against the Knights, and the celebrations of his team mates when he scored, and it effectively felt as if Sydney City had won the game at this point, with Taukeiaho adding the extras seamlessly a minute later.
Sydney City weren’t done, however, with Pearce and Fergo combining to send Watson over seven minutes out from the end. It started with a terrific kick from Pearce, but the real inspiration came from Ferguson, who somehow found space and strength to put in the offload of the game, and perhaps the best offload of the Chooks’ entire season. With Sione Mata’utia wrapped around his waist, Ferguson brought all his height and heft as winger to reach out the Steeden with his right hand, wait, and send it on to his stand-in fullback as dextrously and calmly as if it were a basketball – a move so surprising and yet so placidly executed that it took the Knights entirely by surprise, allowing Watson to slice through the line and put down four more points, with Taukeiaho adding the extras once again.
From a deadlock of 12-4, the Roosters had returned to a more comfortable and predictable 28-4, and while the Knights may have put in a valiant struggle, there was something unarguable about the Chooks’ supremacy, especially given that Watson was standing in for Michael Gordon at fullback. They’ll be looking to replicate that form, then, when they take on the Cowboys at Allianz next week, while Newcastle fans will have chalk this up to yet another learning curve for the struggling Knights.
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