The Dragons might have won fifteen of nineteen matches in Newcastle as the visiting team, and might be way above the Knights on the ladder, but the odds still somehow felt stacked against them when they rocked up at Hunter Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Whether it was the sheer number of upsets over the last couple of weeks, the terrible run to the finals from the Red V themselves, or the pressure placed on some of the younger St. George players in the absence of some of their key big guns, it was the Dragons, rather than the Knights, who felt as if they had a point to prove.
It didn’t help, either, that Newcastle were clearly raring for a home win in their final game of the season to consolidate their gradual rehabilitation over the last couple of years. If they came away with the victory here, they would have gone from one win in 2016, to five wins in 2017, to ten in 2018 – a pretty good track record for Nathan Brown given the condition in which he found the club when he came on board two years ago.
The match started with a linebreak from Matt Dufty, but it came to nothing – the first of many near-misses that saw the Dragons remain tryless for the entirety of this first stanza. That said, the Red V got the first points of the game after a slow peel from Mitch Barnett, with Zac Lomax stepping up in Gareth Widdop’s absence for his first kick at NRL level, although this would turn out to be the precursor to a pretty frustrating opening act from the young centre as well.
A few minutes later, Ben Hunt put in a good last-tackle kick, leading to a knock-on from Newcastle, and a grounding from Jack De Belin, but it was ruled no try after Cameron McInnes got himself involved in the play despite being in front of his halfback when he booted the footy forward. It was Barnett who was responsible for the knock-on, just as he had been responsible for Lomax’s penalty goal, but he made up for it a couple of tackles later when he crashed over and almost scored.
A few tackles later, Lomax was trapped in goal and the Knights got a dropout, all on the back of a deft grubber from Mitchell Pearce, who proved the best kicker in the field during the first forty minutes. On the next set, Pearce also initiated the movement towards the left edge that saw Ken Sio cross over for the first try of the afternoon, becoming the Knights’ top tryscorer of 2018 in the process.
It wasn’t the most elegant of tries, as Sio bobbled the ball a bit and just managed to regain possession as it slid across his chest and hit the turf. It did the job, though, bringing Newcastle to a two-point lead after Nick Meaney failed to get the conversion through the posts. Two points isn’t all that much, but there was something decisive about these opening moments that made it clear that the Knights were determined to get points any way they could, and take advantage of any lead they could muster.
A cough-up from Jamie Buhrer shortly after was a bit of a dent in that determination, especially because it laid the platform for a Hunt grubber that set up Lomax to scoot forward for what initially looked like his first try at an NRL level, right at the back of an in-goal area. Sio put in a valiant effort to stop him, but at first it looked as if it had come to nothing, following an on-field call of try and a referral to the Bunker.
In slow motion, though, it became clear that Sio had disrupted Lomax’s momentum just enough to prevent him grounding the Steeden when he hit the turf, making this the second frustrated St. George try off the back of a Ben Hunt kick. It was a bitter pill for the away crowd to swallow, especially after Sio’s loose handling for his own try, and things went from bad to worse with an escorts penalty on James Graham a couple of sets later.
So bad were things for the Dragons, given how they should have been performing, that they had no choice but to double down and regain some pride after Levi knocked a quick play-the-ball on during the fourth tackle just as the Knights were starting to apply some pressure. The Red V seized their opportunity to reverse the narrative, and a big run from Tyson Frizell combined with another kick bomb succeeded in disheveling Mitch Barnett and then Aiden Guerra into a pair of penalties, the first for a dangerous tackle, the second for a second effort.
The Dragons chose to take the two – a pretty big statement about their confidence given that they were only two behind – and yet Lomax’s kick bumped off the upright and back into the field of play, leaving them back where they’d started. Meanwhile, Frizell was taken off for an HIA as the Knights’ momentum resurged, culminating with a terrific kick from Pearce that was knocked backwards by Jordan Pereira and then caught in-goal by the hosts for another Newcastle dropout.
The next set should have ended pretty easily for the Dragons, with what amounted to a hand-over kick from Pearce, replete with a pretty manageable bounce. Even that proved too much, however, for the Red V, with Dufty knocking on the footy instead of catching it on the chest, and gifting the Knights yet another bout of possession. Sure, it might have come to nothing after a misdirected run from Jack Cogger, but the ball was clearly in the Knights’ court, and the Dragons were clearly feeling it.
Five minutes out from the break, St. George had yet another aborted try, after Dufty passed the footy to Lomax right on the line for what should have been an easy four points, only for Lomax to knock it on in-goal. While the Dragons might have shown some defensive acumen to clean up Pearce a couple of tackles later, the break couldn’t come soon enough for Lomax, who now lost the ball himself on the first tackle of the subsequent St. George set.
A brilliant crossfield kick from Pearce concluded the first stanza, defying Tim Lafai and bouncing off Aidan Guerra’s back before Shaun Kenny-Dowall got it to ground for the second successive Newcastle try. It wasn’t immediately clear that SKD had got the chocolates, however, since the try had all kinds of question marks around it – especially whether or not Guerra had got a hand to it, and whether or not SKD had knocked the footy on with his right hand before grounding it with his left.
The result of try was therefore doubly rousing for the Knights, and doubly frustrating for the Dragons, given the number of clutch situations of this kind that had worked against them throughout the first half. The Dragons now hadn’t scored for 125 minutes, and needed a different angle, or a fresh approach, to regain some control over the game, and the ladder, without Widdop, Aitken and Vaughan.
Amazingly, St. George managed just that, thanks to two equally spectacular and unexpected tries. The first came from Jeremy Latimore, who collected a short ball from McInnes right on the line and then simply slammed his way through Josh King and Danny Levi to score against the padding. The big forward hadn’t scores since Round 23 2016 against the Panthers at Pepper Stadium, so it felt like the Red V were bringing out every weapon in the arsenal to claw their way back into the game.
Eleven minutes later, an offload from Lafai to McInnes on the ground set up the St. George hooker for his second try assist, although for a very different kind of try. Offloading to Nene Macdonald in turn, McInnes watched his winger storm sixty metres up the field and twist out of a low tackle from Meaney to put down the second try for the visitors. This time, Lomax got the extras, bringing the Dragons to sixth on the ladder if they could hold this lead or build on it.
A big run always revitalizes a team, and it was compounded here by the vision of a St. George icon putting down points, since with so many big names absent from the field Macdonald’s cult status felt more precious to the home crowd than ever. Over the next couple of sets, the Knights dug deep to regain some control, but it was now their turn to be frustrated at the put-down, as Kurt Mann managed a big defensive effort to just prevent SKD scoring in the right corner.
Twelve minutes out from the end, the Dragons consolidated further, as Hunt picked up a loose Newcastle ball and followed it with a short inside pass to Lomax, who in turn sent it across to Dufty for a second big run down the field. Every bit as rousing as Macdonald’s sixty-metre dash, it was great for the away crowd to see Hunt and Dufty finally getting into gear, and the vision and organization at fullback was especially encouraging for a Dragons outfit whose spine has sometimes seemed a bit disheveled over the last couple of weeks.
Full credit has to go to Lomax, as well, for an unselfish play, and some deft timing, and even if he missed the next conversion the Dragons were now a comfortable eight points with a little over ten minutes left of the Knights’ 2018 season. Yet a crossfield chip for Pearce changed all that, setting up Sio for another try, and bringing it to a four-point ball game after Meaney failed to add the extras.
Five minutes out from the end, Dufty coughed up the football ten minutes out from the Dragons’ line, leading to an agonizingly slow sequence of Bunker analysis in which it was eventually declared that Cogger had also knocked on after the ball brushed against his arm, rendering the subsequent Newcastle put-down moot. It was the last really major opportunity for the red and blue army, and a welcome let-off for the Dragons, who clocked up another four points thanks to Pereira three minutes out from the end.
Still, St. George are going to be looking for a more decisive win than this during the first week of finals footy, since this wasn’t quite a finals-worthy performance, even with their big players off the field, while the win was close enough that Newcastle can also hold their heads high as they set their sights on 2019.