Neither team scored a try during the opening forty minutes of the Newcastle-Cronulla clash at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday afternoon, although the game ended up being one of the most exciting in both teams’ recent histories. Despite a linebreak from Matt Moylan seven seconds in, the first ten minutes showed some promising signs for the Knights, with David Klemmer contributing a big offload before a last-tackle kick from Mitchell Pearce that Moylan knocked on.
The Sharks followed with their first big defensive set of the night, but with Shaun Johnson booting the footy 95 metres downfield, Conor Watson was content to wait for it to just skittle into touch, before bringing it back for a seven tackle set for the Knights. Johnson was clearly unsettled during these opening minutes, and piggybacked the home team back down the other end shortly after with a second effort, but he made up for it by catching a Pearce grubber right on the line a couple of tackles later.
Yet while the ex-Warrior might have read the bounce of the ball perfectly, he was no match for the Newcastle big men, who drove him back in goal and gained their side the first dropout of the evening. It was one of the high points of the game for the Knights, whose momentum now took a bit of a hit as two tries went begging. The first came after Lachlan Fitzgibbon broke through the line but was brought to ground by a low tackle from Briton Nikora, while the second came when Edrick Lee knocked on a harbor bridge pass from Pearce that reached him just as it was hitting the turf.
A couple of sets later, Nikora once again got the better of Fitzgibbon, after a Pearce kick was contested in goal and found its way back into the field of play, but with a knock-on from Paul Gallen midway through the next set, the Knights got the footy once again. By this stage, they had enjoyed about 70% of possession, but they still couldn’t translate that advantage into points, partly because Pearce’s last-tackle kicks weren’t quite syncing up with the rest of the team, or the Cronulla defence.
At the end of the next set, the ex-Rooster actually kicked twice, with the first effort ricocheting off the Cronulla attack on the fourth tackle, and the second effort finding Shaun Kenny-Dowall on the last. Despite gaining possession under severe pressure from Sosaia Feki and Gallen, SKD lost the Steeden just before he hit the ground. If he had landed half a second earlier it would have been a sure try, but in the instant before he put it down it slid along his elbow and just out of his deliberate grasp.
Two of the biggest new recruits now started to feel the pressure, with Jesse Ramien losing the footy under another massive defensive push from the Sharks, and Johnson knocking on in the first play out of the scrum. Seventeen minutes in, when Pearce kicked directly to Jayden Brailey, it felt as if something had to give. For a moment, a sideline kick from Johnson steadied the ship, and helped steady Johnson himself, as Cronulla followed up with another solid defensive drive, culminating with Andrew Fifita containing a Klemmer offload and a pack effort holding up Daniel Saifiti over the line.
Yet this just led to a superb passage of play from Edrick Lee, who responded at the end of the next set with a huge hit on Fifita that dislodged the football and prevented Johnson from executing a last-tackle play. Lee put in an even better tackle a couple of sets later – a trysaver at the tail end of a harbor bridge pass from Johnson that shut down one of the Sharks’ best pointscoring opportunities during this opening stanza. Three minutes out from the end, Johnson mistimed a crucial pass, trying to deceive the Knights into thinking he was shifting the footy over to Moylan, only to opt for Dugan, who was right beside him, as his receiver.
It was the kind of move that Johnson could have made with his eyes shut at the Warriors, but he didn’t quite gel with the team here. That said, the Sharks got another chance ninety minutes out from the siren, when Fitzgibbon was pinged for an escorts penalty. Moving the footy fluidly across to their right side, they seemed on the verge of scoring, only for another show of strength from Lee to force Dugan to cough up the Steeden at the eleventh hour.
Interestingly, Dugan coughed up the ball before Lee even got to him, which said something about the pass he was receiving, but said even more about the fear that the ex-Raider had instilled in the Sharks over the course of the evening, since even the spectacle of him storming in was enough to throw Dugan off his game. While the scoreboard was locked on 0-0, then, Cronulla had considerably more to prove when they returned from the sheds, especially given that Newcastle were also backed by a home crowd.
For a moment, it looked as if the Sharks had returned to the field revitalised, as a kick from Johnson allowed Sione Katoa to get his right hand to the ball, and pop it over to Dugan to cross over the line. In slow motion, however, it became even clearer that Katoa had deliberately thrown the ball over Watson’s head, meaning that the scoreboard was still empty. Nevertheless, the Sharks were the first to score, with Johnson booting through two points after an offside penalty from Fitzgibbon, although Pearce levelled things pretty quickly after some grappling from Fifita.
Technically, the two teams were head and head, but in between those two penalty kicks the Sharks had experienced one of their most vulnerable moments of the match so far. Not only did Moylan suffer his second knock-on of the night under the high ball, but his subsequent dropout was even worse, as he booted the football off his shin at such a clumsy, wonky, awry angle that it almost worked, taking the Knights by surprise and giving Cronulla an unexpected chance at getting the footy back.
A huge trysaving tackle from Townsend seventeen minutes out from the end got the Sharks a second wind, and led to their single most promising tryscoring opportunity of the game so far – a quick movement down the left edge that almost saw Feki cross over, only to be called back due to a forward pass from Josh Morris. A few sets later, a pass from Moylan landed on Morris’ boot, and the momentum had swung back Newcastle’s way. For a couple of sets, the Knights consolidated, until a superb decoy play saw Pearce pop a shot ball over to Tim Glasby for the first try of the game.
The most incredible sequence of the night now ensued, and the first great talking point of the 2019 season. Chasing down a kick, Dugan almost got the footy to ground, shifting the ball from his left hand, to his right hand, and then back to his left hand once again. After the longest replay of the night, it was deemed that, despite an on-field ruling of try, Duges had lost the footy just before regaining it in his left hand, meaning that this couldn’t be a conventional or regular try.
However, the replay was also interested in an obstruction from Lee on Katoa earlier in the play. At first it looked as if the big backliner might be in for a professional foul, and ten minutes in the bin, only for the Bunker to decide that Katoa would have scored if Lee hadn’t got in the way, despite the fact that the footy had curved away to the right, closer to Dugan, where not even Dugan had managed to get it to ground. The Sharks were therefore awarded the first penalty try of 2019, and Johnson was given a conversion right in front of the posts to bring the score to 8-8.
Both teams were surely thinking field goal as play resumed, while Newcastle were smarting under this controversial decision. In one of those twists that make rugby league so great, however, the call ended up benefiting the Knights, since it meant that Lee remained on the field, instead of being sent to the bin – and it was Lee who intercepted a pass from Townsend to Dugan, of all people, a few minutes later, slamming down the length of the park to cap off one of the best games in his career.
An error from Gallen ninety seconds out from the end was the death knell for the Sharks, and while the Knights didn’t score again, Lee’s run was enough spectacle to sustain them for weeks. After so many years of heartache, this was the kind of match that Newcastle have been waiting for, and you can bet that they will be coasting on their runner’s high when they take on the Panthers at home next week. With Kalyn Ponga absent, the win was even better, while on the other side of the Steeden the Sharks will be keen to come away with a strong home win over Gold Coast next week, since none of their new recruits were firing at full force tonight.