ROUND 21: Newcastle Knights v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (ANZ Stadium, 29/7/17)
The Knights came away with their third win of 2017 and one of their most emotional victories in recent memory at the back end of a home game against the Dragons on Saturday afternoon. Scoring two tries in the opening twenty minutes of the match, Newcastle looked set to coast ahead and then fall behind as so often happens, but they managed to keep St. George out, scoring the only try in the second stanza to get ahead by six points, with Trent Hodkinson clinching it with a field goal two minutes out from the end.
After a bit of an inconsistent start from both sides, Brock Lamb put down the first points five minutes in. There wasn’t much more to it a than a standard chip-and-chase, but the young half’s timing and professionalism was outstanding as he ran right up to the Dragons line before dropping the footy on his boot, getting the distance just right to allow him to squeeze through Josh Dugan, Gareth Widdop and Tim Lafai to pop the Steeden to ground just across the line and cement this as a Newcastle home game from the outset.
A couple of minutes later, Shaun Kenny-Dowall made it two for the Knights, launching himself into the air under a Brock Lamb bomb, outjumping the Dragons and bobbling the ball only to regain composure and possession again before any other players could get a hand to the Steeden. By the time he smashed to the ground it felt as he’d been in the air for thirty seconds or more, and with Hodkinson adding the extras once again the Knights were ready to rock, in one of their strongest openings – possibly their strongest opening – of the 2017 season.
It wasn’t just the attack, either, but the defence that was coming together for the Knights over these first minutes, with Jason Nightingale looking to certain to score in the left corner after some sweeping play from the Dragons around the fifteen minute mark, only for Lamb to boot him into touch at the eleventh hour for one of the best pre-emptive tackles in weeks. The Red V responded at the twenty-third minute, though, thanks to a superb piece of second phase play, in which Jack De Belin was twisted around a full rotation by Nathan Ross right on the line, but kept his hand clamped on the ball and his eyes on the Dragons attacking line in order to offload the footy just as the tackle was coming to a close.
From there, the ball changed hands a couple of times before Joel Thompson flicked it back to Paul Vaughan, setting up the big frontrower to crash over the line to put down the first points for St. George-Illawarra. The try was hardly guaranteed, however, with Vaughan putting in an amazing display of footwork for such a massive unit to skip out of an ankle tap and dance around two more Newcastle defenders, reiterating his status as one of the most dexterous and nimble forwards in the game today. With Widdop slotting the ball through the posts, the visitors were back within a converted try of the hosts, and started to grind in again with fifteen minutes to the break.
Despite having got themselves back in the game the Dragons struggled to make any more of a dent on the scoreboard, thanks in part to a series of escalating errors – six by the half hour mark – and thanks in part to a Newcastle outfit that seemed particularly steeled to hold on to their opening lead. As the half hour mark came and went, the play became more fragmented and fractured, with frequent stoppages in play and lots of changes in possession. Twice, the Dragons came close to crashing over and twice they were denied.
The second time was particularly heartbreaking, with Tyson Frizell putting in an obstruction on Hodkinson just before Nene Macdonald scooped up the Steeden and ran the length of the field, sprinting ninety metres only to find his team with a penalty, rather than a try, at the end of it all. It was a frustrating situation for the Dragons, since this should really have been their game after their stunning performance the week before, and with Dugan back on the field, especially as the Knights grew scrappier as the half time siren approached.
With Newcastle gaining a penalty just before half time and opting to take the two, the Dragons’ inability to score a try seemed even more emphatic – and the spectacle of this penalty goal may have been what roused the Red V to put down a particularly heroic four-pointer just before they headed to the sheds. As so often occurs in these situation, it involved taking advantage of an error, with Mata’utia coughing up the ball with a little over a minute on the clock, granting the Dragons the scrum feed.
From there, Widdop put in a brilliant show of leadership and gamesmanship to abruptly shift the play over to the right before sending the ball back inside to Dugan, who hesitated for the briefest of moments before offloading for Korbin Sims to run a straight, hard line to score right on the siren – hard enough to slam right over Dane Gagai in his efforts to find the chalk. With Widdop adding the extras, the Dragons were only two points at the beginning of the second half, with both teams aware that the next outfit to score would have control of the following forty minutes, as the play became more urgent and focused from both sides.
Nevertheless, it took until the 71st minute for another team to put down a try, with the only points scored for the majority of the second stanza coming from a penalty goal for the Dragons that levelled the score at 14-14. In a dramatic moment, Macdonald reprised his magnificent run from the first half, and offloaded to Matt Dufty in the midst of a tackle from Ross, only for Dufty to cough it up on the line. As the final siren loomed, it seemed as if the miraculous might happen, and the Knights might retain their lead, but also that Newcastle needed a miraculous move to cement that momentum.
As it turned out, that’s just what they got, with Josh King concluding a strong Knights set nine minutes out from the end by storming at the line, where it took Frizell, Vaughan and a host of other St. George-Illawarra big men to prevent him crashing over. Somehow, in the midst of that swathe of red and white jerseys, King managed to pop the ball backwards, where Jacob Saifiti scooped it up and slammed over the line right beside the tackle on King, whose Dragons defenders had barely had time to extricate themselves before the four points they were trying to forestall were put down right beside their boots.
It was the kind of try that looked even more fortuitous and miraculous in slow motion, with King coming about as close to dropping the ball as possible, but still somehow seeming to maintain just enough control of the Steeden for the replay to suggest that he’d simply slotted the ball backwards rather than losing it in the midst of the tackle. With Hodkinson adding the extras, the Knights were a converted try ahead, in what may well have been the most suspenseful nine minutes of their season, and their own very special grand final. Certainly, when Hodkinson added the sixteenth field goal of his career two minutes out from the end, the crowd were as jubilant as any grand final crowd I’ve seen, with all the frustrations of home loss after home loss coming to the fore, and Nathan Brown turning away from the camera in emotion as the Knights were more or less assured of the winWhile it was only Round 21, then, there was something about this victory that felt like it belonged in finals football, not least because the Dragons have been prominent finals contenders throughout so much of 2017.
With a series of away losses behind them, now, the Red V are going to have to regroup over the next couple of weeks, while the Knights will surely be still high on their success for weeks and weeks to come, no matter how they go in Rounds 22-26, since this was the kind of victory – late in the year, against a top team, at home – that will prove critical in their ongoing rehabilitation of their history, mythology and team spirit.
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