Both Penrith and Newcastle had a lot riding on Saturday afternoon’s match at Pepper Stadium. On the one hand, the mountain men needed to win this fixture if they were going to stay in the top four. On the other side of the Steeden, if the Knights won they would have had their most number of wins since 2014, cementing 2018 as a comeback season.
The fact that Penrith had won off a series of tighter and tighter comebacks over the last three weeks made it doubly important that they take advantage of the home crowd energy to assert themselves from the very outset of the game. Yet with Tyrone Peachey still relatively uncomfortable at fullback, and a damaging wind setting in during the opening moments of the game, their advantage was far from secure, with Newcastle dominating the opening moments of the match.
An intercept on Waqa Blake provided Mitchell Pearce with the platform he needed to make his presence felt immediately, in the form of a superb harbor bridge pass across to Sione Mata’utia on the right edge of the Newcastle attack that would have resulted in the first four points of the afternoon for Shaun Kenny-Dowall if Mata’utia’s pass hadn’t been called forward.
It was to be the beginning of a series of forward passes, handling errors and loose carries over the opening minutes, resulting in eight errors by the ten minute mark – four from each team. Little by little that started to undo the Knights’ opening momentum, although they remained the strongest team on the field, especially given their comparative position on the ladder, with every Penrith effort seeming to come undone, or failing to yield points.
One of the most decisive moments for the home side came from Dallin Watene Zelezniak, who put in a terrific effort under a Pearce bomb about eleven minutes in, only for Dean Whare to cough up the footy to Ken Sio immediately after. Despite the pressure to step up in the absence of James Maloney, and despite his match-winning efforts against the Titans the week before, Nathan Cleary also struggled to make himself felt in these opening minutes, with Ponga dominating the rookie stakes.
Still, the Knights needed a decisive gesture to wrest control of what fast becoming a scrappy match from both sides. A penalty for Sione Katoa for not being square at marker provided them with just the right opportunity, as they chose to tap and go, sweeping the Steeden across to Sio, who was held up on the left edge, before shifting it back to the left just as rapidly, in the most expansive sequence of the afternoon so far.
This time, Mata’utia did his job well, taking the tackle and then feeding the footy to Danny Levi, who sent a well-timed short ball across to Aidan Guerra, who showed terrific timing to get on the outside of Viliame Kikau and brush off Josh Mansour on his right. Part of the power of Guerra’s move was how he effortlessly he sliced between the two defenders, but it was such a gutsy play that it felt as if he’d monstered them in the process, making it a resounding opening try for the Knights.
They only remained four points ahead, however, since the escalating wind proved too much for Sio, who was taking over kicking duties while Ponga nursed his hamstring injury. Newcastle didn’t let it deter them, however, as a penalty from Isaah Yeo for holding down paved the way for their next try. Running right up to the line, and judging Peachey’s position and intentions perfectly, Ponga made as if to pass to Lachlan Fitzgibbon but instead grubbered through the defence for Corey Denniss to slam through and score the second four-pointer of the afternoon.
It was a stunning vision of Ponga’s dexterity and judgment, as well as his prodigious ability to slow down the play and reorient clutch sequences around his deliberations – a quality he shares with Lachie Lewis, whose kicks against the Warriors this round had a similar kind of meditative professionalism to them. That put even more pressure on Cleary to step up, and he did so a couple of sets later, booting the ball down the end of the field on the third tackle, recognizing that Penrith desperately needed to complete, and to attain some decent field position.
Corey Harawira-Naera read the play perfectly, setting off as soon as the Steeden left his halfback’s boot, and arriving at the other end just in time to tackle it free of Nick Meaney, who could only look up from the turf as Sione Katoa scooted in to scoop up the footy and ground it beneath the posts, setting up Cleary to bookend this stunning sequence with the first conversion of the afternoon so far.
Penrith had got themselves back in the game with a bang, then, but they didn’t have much time to savour it, since the Knights now engineered a sequence that couldn’t have reversed the Panthers’ momentum better if it had been planned ahead of time. For one thing, Harawira-Naera now went from try assister to try enabler, coming up with an error that saw the Knights get the footy back sooner than any Panther would have expected.
Conversely, Meaney now went from try enabler to try assister, capping off a scintillating string of passes that saw the Steeden move to the right edge of the field where Mata’utia bounced over for four more points. Full credit has to go to Pearce, as well, who set the tone for this passage of play by coming in right to the line and sending the ball across to catch his fullback on the chest, in a vision of utter consolidation and professionalism that captured, in miniature, just how far the Knights have come in the last couple of years.
Between how quickly these four points succeded Katoa’s try, and the rapidity of the passes themselves, it now felt as if the Panthers hadn’t even really scored, so decisively had Newcastle regained control of the game. As the first stanza wound to a close, both teams tried to get across the line again, but they headed into the sheds with the same 14-6 scoreline – a differential that, if anything, probably failed to reflect just how strong the Knights had been over this opening half.
A misdirected pass from May to Peachey fifty seconds out from the break gave Penrith some food for thought as they headed into the sheds, as did a last-tackle kick that saw Ponga catch the footy right on the chest as the siren rang out. Yet Newcastle were the next to score, although not until another half hour of footy had passed, despite them managing to wrest control of the second stanza much as they had the first.
The back forty actually started out with an escorts penalty from Ponga, followed by an error from Deniss after cleaning up a Cleary grubber. With Levi coughing up the football under pressure from Harawira-Naera, and an offside penalty for Newcastle halfway through the next Penrith count, it looked as if the mountain men might be managing to build some momentum. Yet Newcastle simply took this as the opportunity to showcase some of their best goal line defence of the season, keeping back one Penrith surge after another, including a terrific cleanup of a huge effort from Kikau.
The tipping-point was probably a grubber from Cleary that Ponga knocked on in goal. If the Panthers had received another set of six they might just have broken the Knights’ defensive efforts, but with Katoa penalised for being offside within the ten the visitors got another break and another chance at the footy. From there, they reconsolidated, and Pearce and Ponga stepped up even more than they had in the opening stanza to guide their team to victory.
A brilliant kick from Pearce at the hour mark played as a statement of purpose, as the ex-Rooster booted the footy straight into the wind, but somehow still managed to slice the defence as cleanly as if the weather had been completely calm. Ten minutes out from the end, Sio caught a Cleary kick on the full in the in goal area, resulting in a seven tackle set for the Knights, and the platform for Pearce and Ponga’s best linkup of the afternoon.
It started with a strong run down the short side from Ponga, and ended with.a short pass from Pearce to Ponga to set up Sio to crash over in the left corner, bookending the try that his catch in-goal had enabled. Between the young gun and the veteran, it was terrific to see Pearce and Ponga connecting during these critical moments, while the trust that the halfback placed in his five-eighth must have been an encouraging sight for any Newcastle supporters in the crowd.
As the final minutes wound down, it became clearer and clearer that Penrith weren’t going to be able to bring about one of the comebacks that had served them so well over the last trio of games. Sensing their position in the top four slipping away before their eyes, the Panthers brought some pretty aggressive energy to a fight that broke out four minutes from the end, and the Knights responded in kind, resulting in four players being sent to the sin bin – Levi and SKD for the visitors, and May and Kikau for the guests.
Even the punch on Dylan Walker didn’t necessitate the same firmness from the refs as this concluding sequence, which was Origin-like in its intensity, but without the sense of occasion that can make Origin biffs so entertaining to watch. It was especially embarrassing for the Panthers, who had clearly let the game get the better of them, even if the Knights had also played a role as well, and the mood grew even more sombre at Pepper as the match finally got back to its last four minutes.
A linebreak and try from Wayde Egan two minutes out from the end got Penrith some small consolation, but it was soured by what had come before, in what was the most visceral defeat of the year for the mountain men. They’ll be looking to come back, and come back convincingly, when they take on the Warriors in Auckland next Friday night, while the Knights will be keen to continue building the morale for their 2019 season when they front up against the Sharks at Southern Cross.