The Knights put in their single best win of the season at ANZ to start off Round 22, chalking up their first away win after 23 losses on the road, and their third consecutive win after two barnstorming victories over the Dragons and Warriors at Macdonald Jones Stadium. Despite the fact of this being Tim Mannah’s 200th game, it was a fairly scrappy night all up from Parramatta, and a pretty quiet night from Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses in the halves, with Moses, in particular, only intermittently glimpsing the brilliance he’s showcased over the last two rounds.
The Knights had virtually all the ball for the first couple of minutes, and made the most of it as well, escalating their possession and field position and deciding to take the two when they received a penalty right on the Parramatta line. It was a great decision too, with Josh King putting in two barnstorming short-range runs to tire out and dishevel the Parra front row, who had done nothing but defend across the first five minutes of the game so far.
Perhaps that’s why the Eels proved so disorgansied in the face of some deft movement from Newcastle across to the left edge, with Michael Jennings rushing into the Knights’ attack and Kirisome Auva’a getting caught out of position, allowing Ken Sio to crash over in the corner a moment later. With Trent Hodkinson pulling off a difficult sideline conversion Newcastle had put their stamp on the first half of the game, but they didn’t have to wait too long to announce their presence with even more power.
A couple of minutes later, Brock Lamb broke through the Parramatta line, breaking out of a barely-formed tackle from Siosaia Vave and skipping around Corey Norman to get out ahead of the blue and gold army before sending the Steeden across to Dane Gagai, who flipped it back on the inside at just the right moment to Mitch Barnett, who had run a strong hard line and picked up enough momentum to outpace even Semi Radradra on his way to the chalk.
The fact that Barnett had scored a double the week before just enhanced the sense of momentum that came with this second try, and with Hodkinson adding the extras right in front of the post the Knights were sitting at 12-0 with barely ten minutes on the clock. It was one of their most rousing openings of the 2017 season – especially for an away game, and especially against a team so far above them on the NRL ladder.
The Eels got back in the game about ten minutes later, thanks to a clean, clinical pass from Daniel Alvaro to Norman, a wide pass from Norman across the front of Hodkinson’s chest and, finally, a short, sharp pass from Moses to Michael Jennings moment before he copped a damaging tackle from a belated Newcastle defence. From there, Jenko combined the spectacle of Brock, Gagai and Barnett’s runs into one sublime line break, bursting through the Knights to slam down the length of the field with the combination of speed and strength that makes him such a force to be reckoned with.
Only Gagai came close to him, and for the last fifteen metres of his run we were treated to a spectacular sprinting race, with Jennings seeming almost playful in his glances over to Gagai, as if challenging him to see if he could catch up. The future Rabbitoh came close, too, latching onto Jennings’ hand and getting a hold of his arm ten metres out for the line, but only for a moment, with Jenko’s burly frame and acceleration by this late stage in his run shrugging off Gagai as if he were barely there. It was an even greater show of determination, then, when Gagai launched forward for a second shot, clutching Jennings by the waist and trying to bring him to ground.
By this point it was too later, however, with Jenko slamming the Steeden over the chalk with Gagai still around him, claiming ownership of ANZ Stadium in exactly the way that the Eels needed at this point in the game. It was a testament to the exuberance and energy with which Jennings has acclimatised to right centre, and while Moses may not have added the extras, his role as try assister was more than enough to make it feel as if he would live up to his stunning two previous performances in Eels colours.
The first half ended with a volatile sequence that saw Parra put down six more points and virtually every player on the field get embroiled in a fracas that was scrutinised in detail before the try was actually awarded. The prologue was an aborted try from Radradra that almost appeared to have put the Eels back on the board, only for Bunker footage to confirm Henry Perenara’s onfield ruling by showing that the future Toulon player had been shoved out of the field away before getting the ball to ground, and that he’d probably lost possession anyway, bouncing more than placing the Steeden to turf.
As so often happens, however, the blue and gold seemed galvanised more than anything else by that frustration, with Kirisome Auva’a following in Jennings’ footsteps by ducking below and out a tackle from some big Newcastle forwards to add yet another spectacular line break to this first half of footy so far. This time, the Parra defence were a bit more prepared, but it didn’t stop Auvu’a sending the Steeden across to Jennings, who almost crossed over once again only for Gagai and three other players to hold him up. A couple of tackles later, Hodkinson cleaned up a bomb from Norman, but only under the pressure of a swathe of Parramatta jerseys slamming over the line, granting the hosts the first goal line dropout of the evening.
The next set started with a massive run and hit-up from Suaia Matagi – Jamie Soward described it as the kind of run that sends shivers down your spine – and from thereon every player in Parra colours played this set as if they were a forward, right down to Norman, who plunged at the line and twist and spun in the tackle as if he was the biggest and burliest player on the field. It wasn’t just the spectacle of Matagi’s run that engendered this strength either, but the line break from Auva’a that started all, since few other centres in the competition can channel the intensity and aggression of a prop when the situation demands it.
Over the last few weeks Auvua’a had been particularly in form, and his intensity was key to the Parramatta push in these final moments, which culminated with another, smaller kick from Norman. Popping up beneath it, Brad Takairangi knocked the ball back, where it bounced in just the right spot for Will Smith to scoop it up and storm over in the corner. That said, storm isn’t quite the right word, since the question of whether the Eels were offside, and whether the Steeden had bounced off Joe Wardle on its way to Smith, meant that the young fullback hesitated for a brief moment as if expecting a cessation of play, only to jog over the line just in case and ground the ball for one of the softest tries in some weeks.
The softness of the try came as something of a surprise after all the energy that had preceded it, but that just deflected all the volatility of the Eels’ attack onto the backplay, where virtually every player on the field responded to Smith’s putdown with a massive fracas that involved a few silly moments from Edwards and Barnett in particular. As complex as any scrum, the bunker actually examined this near-biff in detail to determine whether or not the try might be cancelled, but eventually decided in favour of the Eels, whose victory thereby took on all the intensity of this team-on-team standoff and felt even more assertive, especially once Moses had added the extras on the stroke of halftime.
While they may have been two points below, then, it was the kind of comeback that made them feel like they had the advantage over the Knights when they returned to the field, putting in some punishing moments of play when they trotted out of the sheds. At the fiftieth minute, Peter Mata’utia seemed to have reversed that with another Newcastle try, but in a deflating moment the Bunker footage showed that he was clearly offside, offering the Knights a brief moment of hope only for Parra to double down with their attack on the following set.
It was even more momentous, then, when Newcastle got a hold on the Parra high ball right on their line a couple of minutes later, where they looked set to score only for Smith to put in a professional foul and be sent to the bin for ten minutes. This was the turning-point for the Knights, not least because of the unusual spectacle of seeing a fullback sent off the field, and while Norman may have had the experience to slot into the no.1 jersey, this was still a sufficient enough change to the Parramatta structure to give the Knights a strong competitive edge.
They took advantage of it, too, with Lamb running right to the line a tackle later to clear up just enough space for Lachlan Fitzgibbon to run right past Norman and slam over the line. It was a simple play, but elegant in its simplicity, while the fact of it being Norman who was the main casualty of these four points for Newcastle just made the visitors feel all the more empowered off the back of Smith’s sinbinning. With Hodkinson slotting the ball through the posts, the Knights had arrived at a quite astonishing 10-18 lead, and with Smith off for the next ten minutes they set in to try and make the most of a twelve-man Parra outfit.
A couple of minutes after, Henry Perenara put in one of the more controversial refereeing errors of the year, allowing Ken Sio to pop the ball back out of a tackle that Bunker footage showed had clearly come to an end. It was the kind of bad call, however well intentioned, that almost inevitably fuels the team it advantages – especially when their opposition is down a man – and the Knights made the most of it, with Lamb collecting a neat pass from Danny Levi right on the line and then fending off Cameron King to run the ball, disorienting by making as if to grubber before crashing over to put down four points for himself.
It was an important symbolic moment for the Knights, not simply because it took them to a spectacular 14-point lead over the Eels, or because Lamb had played such a critical role in both tries so far, but because his involvement in the first try had initially appeared to recede to a distant memory towards the end of the first stanza, with the result that his four-pointer now felt like definitive proof that Newcastle had managed to gain the second wind that so often seems to elude them in the back forty, and made good on the impressive form they’d shown in those opening minutes.
If Lamb’s four-pointer seemed to recapitulate the opening of the game, then it felt almost miraculous when Sio crossed over for a double, bookending what at one point appeared to be the Eels’ night with a pair of tries scored in exactly the same point, and in almost exactly the same way. This time, however, it was Hodkinson, rather than Brock, who set up the play, opting to run the ball and then send it abruptly over the left edge, tempting Auvua’a to come in off his line – the big centre had certainly been more convincing in attack than defence – and clearing up some space for Gagai to channel the Steeden across to Sio for one of the most dexterous put-downs in his career.
With the Knights now eighteen points ahead of the Eels – Hodkinson’s conversion bounced off the posts – it was hard to believe that we were watching a team at the bottom of the ladder, with every player in a Newcastle jersey giving so much spirit and strength to these last minutes of the game that you could have been forgiven for assuming that we were in the midst of finals footy. There can be no doubt, then, that this trio of tries will go down as a foundational moment in Newcastle’s ongoing rehabilitation, since even if they took advantage of a twelve man team and a referee error, they took advantage of them with more panache and skill than anyone could have predicted, with the possible exception of Mark Gasnier, who’d somehow prophecied that they’d win on the back of a Ken Sio double.
With Lamb slotting through a field goal at the seventy-seventh minute, and the Eels finally clocking up an away win after losing 23 in the row on a road, this was every bit as momentous game for the Knights as their wins over the Warriors and Dragons in Newcastle the week before – a pair of games that will be hard to beat in terms of emotion, volatility and visceral impact as we head towards the finals.