ROUND 2: Newcastle Knights v. Penrith Panthers (McDonald Jones Stadium, 23/3/19)

The Knights hosted another sparsely scored game at Hunter Stadium on Saturday afternoon, following their close win over Cronulla last week. This time they came away with a close lose, as the Panthers went some way to making up for their frustrating loss to Parramatta at Panthers Stadium for their own first home game of the 2019 season. The win was all the more impressive in that Josh Mansour was off with a mild shoulder injury, replaced by Malakai Watene Zelezniak, while Isaah Yeo was subbed off less than three minutes in after yet another head knock, replaced by Frank Winterstein for his first fixture in Penrith colours.

The HIA came after a slow peel for Sione Katoa, who was penalised accordingly, and for a moment it looked as if the Knights had taken an early lead, with Conor Watson crossing over on their left edge four tackles later. However, it turned out that James Tamou had been obstructed by Lachlan Fitzgibbon – an unpopular decision for the home crowd, given that the big Penrith prop hadn’t seemed that urgent in his pursuit of the football, and a wake-up call for Tamou himself, who now injected a lot more adrenalin into his game, starting with the first carry on the next Penrith set.

A sequence of Penrith penalties now ensued, giving the Knights a series of chances that they were never quite able to build upon. The next came after Hame Sele impeded Kalyn Ponga from making his way back into the field of play after James Maloney kicked the ball dead. While Newcastle didn’t do much on the next set, Mitchell Pearce finished the subsequent set with the best grubber of the game so far, forcing another penalty from Sele, this time for an escort. Not surprisingly, the home team decided to take the two, since it was already clear that this would be a slow-scoring affair.

Tensions started to flare onfield following a dangerous tackle from Maloney, and didn’t get any better when he made the same move shortly after on Tim Glasby, who was replaced by Mitch Barnett. Maloney’s risk-taking is often an asset, but at this early point in the match it was a liability, and this time the Knights chose to tap and go, putting in some of their biggest runs so far. Only the best defensive set of the first twenty minutes allowed Penrith to keep them out, along with a lucky turn of events at the tail-end of Pearce’s final kick, which Shaun Kenny-Dowall tapped back before Jesse Ramien fumbled it through a cluster of defenders and over the sideline.

The Panthers now responded with a deft last tackle sequence, starting with an offload from Nathan Cleary that set up Maloney for a crossfield kick. In the right corner, DWZ batted the footy back in goal, where Ramien leapt up, basketball-style, to pop it on to Ponga. Nevertheless, the Panthers got a dropout, and then chose to tap and go following a late tackle penalty from James Gavet. Maloney’s craftiness now paid off, as he pretended to kick, before sending the footy across to Cleary, who in turn flicked it backwards to James Fisher-Harris for a barnstorming run from ten metres out.

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It got JFH his first try in 45 games, although an uncharacteristically wobbly conversion from Cleary meant that the Panthers were only two points ahead. Still, the sequence had punctured Ponga’s confidence in the five-eighth jersey, with the Penrith halves drawing him into the line so effortlessly that the Knights had to do something to regain their pride. Sure enough, they followed up with a massive defensive effort two sets later, keeping the Panthers within the thirty by the third tackle, when they forced an error from DWZ off the back of a pass from MWZ.

Yet the following Newcastle set came to nothing, as Ponga’s final kick bounced off Dylan Edwards, before Maloney scooped it up and started back down the field. Pearce had a chance at stopping him, but ended up leaking a penalty for a hand in the ruck, culminating a sorry sequence for the Newcastle halves. It was cathartic for the home crowd, then, when Ponga and Lee finally linked up shortly after. Collecting the footy from Pearce, Ponga pivoted off the right foot, disoriented Maloney, and then sent a soaring harbor bridge pass across to Lee to score in the left corner.

It was the way this halves combination was always supposed to be, and the role that Lee was always supposed to play on the wing. For the first time in the game, it really felt as if the Knights were firing, especially when Ponga followed with an elegant, twisting conversion. Once again, though, the Knights couldn’t capitalise, as Pearce followed up with an overlong kick at the end of the restart, gifting Penrith seven tackles to start executing their comeback.

They delivered five minutes out from the siren with the best tryscoring sequence of the game, and one of the best of Round 2 – proof that you should never ever give up on a play. Finding himself about fifteen metres out from the line, Cleary opted for a short-range kick that bounced directly in front of Watson and SKD, who for all money seemed guaranteed to shepherd it into touch.

At the very moment they reached the dead ball line, however, MWZ leapt through the air between them to tap the ball backwards before tumbling into touch himself. Only Pearce was close enough to save the try, but even he was taken aback by this gymnastic display from the Penrith winger, meaning that Winterstein was able to get in ahead of him and ground the football for four more rousing points. Not only was this a breakout collaboration between the two Penrith young guns, but it was arguably the most visionary and focused moment of MWZ’s career – certainly the best try assist – and proof that he may reach a new level in his game by playing at Penrith alongside his brother.

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In slow motion, MWZ’s assist looked more like a tennis move than a rugby league move, injecting a fresh surge of adrenalin into the Panthers attack that would have guaranteed them the game if a critical error from JFH hadn’t prevented them scoring again in the last minute of the first half. While they would go on to win the game, it would be a close win, as they scored their final try of the night – their final points of the night – five minutes into the second half.

This was a very different kind of try from MWZ and Winterstein’s combination, and while it may not have been as spectacular it was just as galvanising. After an injury-stricken opening to the year, and a frustrating HIA at the start of this very game, Yeo collected the footy about seven metres out from the line after Maloney abruptly changed the direction of play. Muscling his way through four defenders to score beside the posts, you could almost see the big second-rower working through his struggles to come out triumphant, in a one-man effort that felt like a team try, or at least a try that assured his team that he was still with them and firing on all fronts.

On its own terms, the twist-and-spin was also a great show of strength, especially in its final stages, when Yeo was taking the full brunt of the Newcastle defence but still managed to get an arm away from Danny Levi to plant the footy to ground. With Cleary adding two more points, the Panthers had finally expanded on their lead, although they wouldn’t score again, leaving thirty-five minutes open for the Knights to score two tries – only two tries – necessary for a second home win in 2019.

Frustratingly, for the home crowd, the Knights weren’t able to deliver. A couple of sets later, Ponga appeared to have crashed over, only for some late pressure from Reagan Campbell-Gillard to prevent him grounding the football at the final moment. It wouldn’t be until the 72nd minute that Newcastle would score again, when Mitch Barnett put down four more points following a trio of penalties from Yeo (offside and ball strip) and Maloney (offside), resulting in a formal warning for the Penrith captain.

Each time, the Knights chose to tap and go, and it gradually eroded the Penrith momentum, culminating with Barnett slamming through on the first tackle after Maloney’s second offside error. It was an utterly barnstorming run, and for a moment seemed to betoken a Newcastle comeback, as Barnett started at the twenty, collected the footy from Pearce at the ten, and then crashed his way through a pack of defenders stationed at the five.

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With Newcastle unable to add another try, however, Barnett’s mammoth effort came to summarise the frustrated potential that had characterized the entire game – everything that should have guaranteed them this home win, but that they had been unable to fully draw upon. They’ll be looking to segue straight from Barnett’s run into a victory over the Raiders at GIO Stadium on Friday night, then, while on the other side of the Steeden the Panthers will be keen for a much bigger win margin when they take on the Storm at home on Saturday.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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