With five ex-Roosters in the Newcastle lineup – including Tautau Moga – Sunday evening’s clash at Allianz Stadium was always going to be personal. While you couldn’t quite call it a grudge match, given that Mitchell Pearce had been forced out of the Chooks, rather than leaving ignominiously or ungratefully, there was still a bit of a volatile atmosphere in the air, for all the cheers that Junior received when he strode out onto the pitch. Given their resurgence over the Bulldogs last night, the Roosters were even keener to make this home game as well, while the Knights – like the Tigers heading into their game against the Broncos – were looking to set up the beginning of a comeback year with a hattrick after wins over Manly and Canberra.
The game started with an incorrect play-the-ball from Blake Ferguson, only for Kalyn Ponga to miss the kick for only the second time in his first grade career. Two minutes later, the situation was reversed, with Nathan Ross giving away a Newcastle penalty after tackling Fergo in the air down the other end of the field. Building on that shift in momentum, the Chooks wasted no time in getting back to the Newcastle goal line, where Cooper Cronk and Luke Keary showcased some of their best synergy in the Roosters’ halves so far to send Latrell Mitchell over to celebrate his fiftieth game.
It started with a rapid change in direction orchestrated by Cronk, who caught the Steeden on its way over to the right side of the field only to send it back to Keary just as quickly. Picking up that cut-out pass as easily as if he and Cronk had been standing shoulder to shoulder, the ex-Rabbitoh responded with a short ball to Mitchell, who’d glimpsed the play and run up at just the right angle to bury the footy into his chest and storm over the line, in a triumphant sequence for his thirtieth try, before sending the Steeden through the posts to make it six points a few minutes later.
Ten minutes in, the rain started to really belt down, and within minutes the pitch was sodden. For about a quarter of an hour, the Roosters started to drift away from the form and focus they’d showed in the opening minutes, starting with a penalty on Keary for being offside within the ten. Down the other end of the field, the Chooks bunched in Pearce and prevented him getting to a good fifth tackle option, but no sooner had they regained possession that they gave up the Steeden again, as Keary tried to pass the ball over Mitchell’s head to Reece Robinson only for the slipperiness of the ball to defy him, ricocheting off the no. 3 and heading straight over the side.
Shortly after, Mitchell himself came up with an error – a knock-on as he got caught in the midst of the Newcastle attack – gifting the Knights a period of possession right on the line that initially looked to have ended quite badly for Brock Lamb, who bobbled the ball once, recollected it, and then finally lost it without being able to get in a satisfactory fifth-tackle option, or get it across to Pearce to do the same. As luck would have it, however, Cronk was now called off for being offside within the ten, and this time Ponga made good on the penalty goal, bringing the scoreline to 6-4.
As the rain settled in and the thirty minute mark loomed things got a bit messy for both sides, with Mitchell conceding a second penalty after a second effort on Aidan Guerra, only for Daniel Saifiti to lose the Steeden right into the chest of the Roosters defence in his first involvement coming off the bench. Shortly after, a forward pass from Jake Friend to Keary led to another changeover, but the biggest brainsnap of the first forty came from the Knights, who had their best chance a couple of sets later after Ponga collected the ball from Pearce and skipped out of a tackle from Cronk, almost breaking through the line before sending the ball across to Moga.
From there, Moga stormed up the side of the field, in what initially looked like a tryscoring opportunity for Newcastle, only to find himself boxed in and assess his options too frenetically for any of them to pan out, ending with him shooting the Steeden across the sideline – the most anticlimactic moment of the night so far for the Knights. Not surprisingly, their rhythm ebbed a bit over the next few sets, opening up space for the Roosters to cross over at the twenty-eighth minute, off the back of a brilliant dramatization of the player movements that have already made 2018 so memorable – a huge encounter between Pearce and Tedesco right on the line, followed by a pitch-perfect crossfield kick from Cronk to finish off the set.
One year ago, nobody could have predicted that combination of players, but it paid dividends here, with Boyd Cordner popping the ball backwards for Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to launch forward and get it over the line after having just come off the bench. The on-field call was no try, due to the possibility of Mitchell having been offside during Cronk’s kick, so it was curious to see the Bunker reverse the decision on the basis of footage that could really have gone one way or another, so close to the line were the two Roosters when the ex-Storm playmaker’s foot hit the boot.
Still, sometimes a challenging call like that can mobilise the opposition, and so it was with the Knights, as a kick from Pearce saw Guerra gain control of the footy and orchestrate an epic putdown that single-handedly showed Newcastle that they had the guts to stay in the game. Thinking quick, Keary grabbed his ex-teammate around the waist, but somehow Guerra managed to slide across and bounce over the Roosters five-eighth, while simultaneously breaking out of a tackle for Friend, retaining control of the Steeden the whole time for the hardest effort of the evening.
The Knights didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy their six points, however, with the Chooks now telescoping their efforts to put down two spectacular tries before both teams headed into the sheds. The first came off the back off a penalty on Moga for a dangerous life on Mitchell, and saw a putdown from Keary that was almost as epic as Guerra’s. Collecting the ball about fifteen metres out from the line, the ex-Bunny dummied lefy and then smashed into Brock Lamb, getting him to ground and squirming around and slamming the Steeden behind his head for four more points.
If these four points were a stunning testament to Keary’s ability to combine the dexterity of a backliner with the strength and courage of a frontrower, then the next try will surely come to be seen as a key moment in the evolution of Keary and Cronk’s superb synergy in the Roosters halves. It started with a crossfield kick from Cronk, which Keary picked up on the first bounce as if the field had been dry as dust, offloading to Radley at the very moment his legs were tackled out from under him.
It was a devastating way for the Tricolours to finish the first half – more than enough to make up for the spectacle of Guerra’s putdown – and the Knights badly needed to score when they hit the park again for the second forty. Two times they tried, and two times they missed it, with Lachlan Fitzgibbon finding himself held up forty-eight minutes in, and Shaun Kenny-Dowall crossing over in the wing moments after only for the replay to show that his left foot had hit the chalk before he ground the ball.
If those two results weren’t disappointing enough, then the Chooks now proceeded to score a try in the most sobering way for Newcastle – with an intercept in their own end that saw the hosts travel the length of the field in a matter of seconds. While the rain might have abated by this point, the Steeden was still slippery, and it cost Ponga dearly when a pass out to the left bounced off Moga’s shoulder and sat up for Cronk to sweep in and scoop it up, before dancing around Ross and then popping it back on the inside, to Joseph Manu, as Ross cleaned him up on the edge.
From there, Manu put in a barnstorming run, reaching the forty before most of the Knights registered what had happened, with only Moga coming close to tackling him. Before the ex-Bronco could make up for his inadveratent role in the intercept, however, Manu sent the ball across to Ferguson, who’d read the play immediately and had burned up alongside his centre from the very beginning, now taking control of the ball to storm ahead and plant it right beside the posts in triumphant ecstasy.
For the first time this year the Knights now felt like the Newcastle outfit of 2016 and 2017, while these four points were yet another testament to how brilliantly Cronk had already synergized with his new team. While lots of commentators were expecting this to happen sooner rather than later, I don’t think many people were expecting it to happen quite this soon, with Cronk playing as seamlessly and superbly as he ever did at the Storm, and lifting the Chooks to his level in the process as well.
Yet that wasn’t the end of Cronk’s genius, with former member of the Big Three now orchestrating two tries that effectively felt like solo efforts. For the first, he grubbered the Steeden through the defence to Keary, only for the richochet to preclude his five-eighth getting to it in the way he’d planned. Ever the calm playmaker, however, Cronk simply launched forward to ground it himself – a perfect symbol of how well he orchestrates and structures any halves combo he inhabits.
A couple of sets later, Cronk gifted Ferguson his second try of the night, in the simplest, cleanest and most elegant four points so far – a pitch-perfect kick from the Roosters halfback that soared over Ross and hit Fergo straight on the chest, who simply had to keep running to catch it and ground it. In its staggering precision and brilliance, it was the first promise that Cronk might shine even more emphatically at the Chooks than he did at the Storm, cementing this as the game at which he has definitively shed his Melbourne colours and acclimatised to his new team and home.
While Roosters fans were raring for another four-pointer, there couldn’t be a more poetic conclusion to the game than the magnificent simplicity of this matchup between Cronk and Fergo, capping off what felt like the official start – the real start – of the 2018 season for Sydney City. Only James Tedesco seemed a little unsure about how to handle being in Cronk’s shadow, never quite linking up with him as effortlessly or as elegantly as Keary had. Still, that’s something to work on in future weeks, while the Knights will be keen to consolidate their gameplay and recoup when they take on an undefeated Dragons outfit at WIN Stadium next Sunday arvo.