The Knights brought home their fourth win of the 2017 season and their first consecutive win in two seasons in a rousing match against the Warriors at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Given the legendary fidelity of Newcastle fans, that made for a pretty elated atmosphere, with the game seeming to mark a decisive step in the evolution of the foundation that Nathan Brown has laid since the beginning of his tenure as coach. In particular, Brock Lamb’s concluding four-pointer – his second in two games – felt like a watershed moment, both as a team try and as a testament to the growing strength and synergy of the Newcastle halves.
That said, it was a sloppy opening for the Knights, with Ken Sio losing the ball on the first kick, and Newcastle only managing to regain some composure on the next set thanks to a fairly middling fifth-tackle option from Kieran Foran. Nevertheless, their shock win over the Dragons last week was clearly a motivating factor, while it didn’t help the Warriors that they were missing three of their key playmakers in Shaun Johnson, Bodene Thompson and Ryan Hoffman, with rookie Mason Lino filling Johnson’s boots alongside Foran at halfback.
Mitch Barnett put down the first points five minutes in, off the back of a terrific line break right on the Warriors’ goal line from Nathan Ross (who almost went over himself), followed by a perfectly timed pass from Lamb. It was the ideal start to the game, and yet Barnett wasn’t done, going over a mere four minutes later to notch up a double before New Zealand had barely laid hands on the ball.
This time, the big lock had more of an opportunity to showcase his speed and strength, running the ball hard and slamming through a pack of Warriors defenders to crash over the line, as Newcastle’s big men also ran up from behind to push him over and ensure that he grounded the ball, in one of the most concise and focused team tries of the year so far.
In fact, so strenuous an effort did the Knights make to support Barnett that it almost looked as if they might have been over-compensating, and that he might not have got the ball over the line, with the on field referees initially calling it no try before referring it up to the Bunker. Thanks goodness they did, since the camera was positioned at exactly the right spot to capture how cleanly and deftly Barnett managed to ground the ball beside the posts, in a dazzling vision of grace under pressure.
Despire this early surge, the Knights wouldn’t score again until an hour in, with David Fusitua going over next to break a nine game drought at the twenty-five minute mark. In one of the best moments of the afternoon for New Zealand, the visitors engineered some nice movement up the right edge of the field, forcing Newcastle to come further and further in from their line, and eventually providing Blake Ayshford with enough of an opportunity to slip out of a tackle from Peter Mata’utia, before sending the Steeden onto his winger.
As the first siren loomed the Knights found themselves with good field position thanks to four successive penalties – including a particularly frustrating one for the Warriors after Issac Luke kicked the ball out on the full – and yet ended up taking the two with one minute to go, perhaps to the chagrin of some Newcastle fans who were expecting four points after all those opportunities. The second half also started well for ths hosts, who were faced with the prospect of a second successive goal line dropout, only for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to be called offside during the kick chase, and to gift possession to Newcastle once again.
At first, the Knights were still not quite good enough to make the most of these opportunities, begging the question of whether the Warriors might still have it in them to win it, despite the fact that they haven’t won a single game in 2017 in which they have gone into the break behind. Yet Newcastle’s grit finally paid dividends in the form of a deft short pass from Trent Hodkinson to Brock Lomb, who threaded his way between Bunty Afoa and Kieran Foran to offload it to Craig Fitzgibbon. From there, Fitzgibbon completed the line break and crashed forward to plant the Steeden over the line as the one hour mark loomed.
It was a cathartic moment for Newcastle fans, not only because it ensured them a more secure 20-4 lead, but because Fitzgibbon had himself appeared to be seriously injury during a stoppage in play just a moment before, and indeed was still limping on his way back from grounding the ball.
More importantly, perhaps, it was the first try since Nathan Ross’ horrific injury ten minutes into second half following a knee to the back. For my money, this was the most agonising injury to watch since Will Hopoate’s head clash earlier in the season, as the Newcastle legend was barely able to make it to the edge of the field, with the commentators speculating that the game might even have to be stopped as medical attendants arrived right on the dead ball line to see to what eventually turned out to be a back fracture.
In the wake of that horrific incident, Fitzgibbon’s four-pointer played a critical role in rallying the crowd and team, to the point where it barely seemed to matter when Nathaniel Roache crossed over a couple of minutes later. After one of the Warriors’ best fifth tackle options and kick chases, Roache had actually been on the verge of putting down points on the previous set, only for Chanel Mata’utia to stick out a leg for the most deliberate trip of the season.
If it looked bad on the field, it was even worse in slow motion, begging the question of just what it will take for a player to be sent to the sin bin in the contemporary game. As it turned out, all the Warriors got was a penalty, and yet a couple of sets later Chanel Mata’utia glimpsed possession only to knock the ball on through RTS’ legs for Roache to scoop up and make good on the four points he really should have been able to put down the first time around.
Still, the Knights were probably too far ahead for the Warriors to catch them, especially once Lamb scored another try eight minutes out from the line. It started with a terrific line break from Peter Mata’utia – nothing fancy, just a hard, strong run at a flailing New Zealand defensive outfit – followed by a pass from Josh King, who found enough space to continue running forward and then send it over to his five-eighth to put it to ground.
In its own way, this was as amazing a moment for the Knights as the Broncos’ victory over Gold Coast was for the Brisbane faithful, and a clear indicator that we can expect good things from them in 2017. On the other side of the Steeden, it was yet another dispiriting loss for the Warriors, and you can be sure that they’ll be trying to find a way to regain some of their pride when they take on the Raiders back at Mt. Smart next weekend.