ROUND 4: Newcastle Knights v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (McDonald Jones Stadium, 8/4/19)

Sunday night’s game between the Knights and Dragons was the third in Round 3 to go into golden point, and the second golden point win this year from Corey Norman, who is proving his mettle in St. George colours more than even his biggest fans might have expected. The match started with an early chance for the Knights, as Shaun Kenny-Dowall caught a last-tackle Mitchell Pearce bomb on the full. He couldn’t quite make it to the line, but popped it across to Mason Lino to continue his momentum.

It all came to nothing when Sione Mata’utia lost the footy under pressure from Tim Lafai moments later, but the Knights had made a big opening statement, daring the Dragons to show their hand against their home ground advantage. That swagger took a bit of a hit, however, when Jesse Ramien made an error beneath a Ben Hunt bomb, and Mata’utia was pinged for being offside, allowing Tim Lafai to boot through the first two points of the game for St. George.

The Dragons now started to build, generating some good speed on their left edge, where they had the numbers for a linebreak only for Paul Vaughan to be called back for an obstruction on Mata’utia. At the other end of the park, the Knights shifted over to the right edge of their attack, asking a fair few questions of the St. George defence, before David Klemmer straightened the play and sent a short ball across to Kalyn Ponga to do his magic.

Magic it was, as Ponga sent a sublime cut-out pass across the chests of two Newcastle players to the left edge of the field. Although the footy travelled a good twenty metres, it still found Edrick Lee square on the chest, allowing the huge winger to shrug off Mikaele Ravalawa for his fiftieth try in the NRL. With Ponga booting through the conversion the Knights were now six ahead, while nobody could doubt that the fullback jersey was working for him in this particular game.

The Dragons now got a boon as an attempted offload from James Graham was called a strip, bringing back memories of the equally bad call when Brett Morris was bundled over the sideline during the Eels-Sharks game on Saturday night, thereby preventing a potential breakaway try from Mitch Moses. The consequences weren’t so immediately drastic this time, but it still got the Dragons their first dropout of the night, as Hunt chose to kick at the start of the tackle count, and Pearce stuck out his right boot for a deflection but ended up ensuring the Red V another set of six.

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Luckily for Newcastle, not much came of the dropout, as a pass from Norman to Graham right on the line went awry, with the footy bouncing off Lino’s shoulder without the ex-Warrior playing at it, giving the Knights the scrum and a much-needed letoff. At the end of their next set, Pearce tried to consolidate with a 40/20, but Dufty cleaned up the Steeden in time, setting up a terrific St. George set in which Lafai accelerated up the left edge, broke out of a couple of tackles, and then imparted some of his momentum to Jordan Pereira to muscle up the middle in turn.

On the last tackle, Norman booted through a kick that bounced backwards at a forty-five degree angle to the ground, resulting in a maelstrom of contestation that eventually led to a putdown on the Dragons’ left edge. In slow motion, however, you could see that Graham had made contact with his right hand while he was in the air, making this an almost-try for the Red V, rather than the four or six points they needed to start making a dent in the scoreboard.

You’d think that the Knights would bring something special on the following set, but Pearce just went for another half-baked 40/20 attempt that was once again cleaned up by Dufty. No surprise, then, that the Dragons started to consolidate, buckling down on their defence the next time they had ball in hand, led by a big shot from Tariq Sims on Aidan Guerra. The moment Tyson Frizell ran onto the park he added the adrenalin factor they needed, collecting the footy and slamming up through the ruck in one of the most decisive gestures of St. George leadership so far.

Just as Pearce had repeated his 40/20 attempt, so Norman now repeated the kick that had careened away from the Newcastle backline a couple of minutes earlier. This time the angle was less challenging, and Pearce was more prepared for it, gathering the footy up into his chest before starting his march back down the field. He’d figured without Frizell, who burned with the frustration of two weeks on the sidelines to slam into him and simply steal the footy, wresting it out of Pearce’s grub before coming to ground directly beneath the posts.

It was an incredible comeback for Frizell following his horrific testicle injury – a try on only his second carry – and a sobering moments for the Knights, especially for their halfback. They needed to score again quickly to regain their opening surge, and that’s just what they did, resulting in the most rapid succession of points in the game. Once again, Ponga was the key ingredient, collecting the footy from Pearce eleven minutes out from the siren for another terrific try-assisting sequence.

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Ponga started the play in much the same position where he assisted Lee, but there were two key differences this time around. First, he held onto the footy longer, digging deep into the line after getting on the outside of Jacob Host, where he drew in Ben Hunt and Euan Aitken before sending the ball across. Second, he only needed the Steeden to straddle one player this time, sending an abbreviated cut-out pass for Hymel Hunt to smash over for another four Newcastle points.

That repetition with a difference – and that ability to dishevel the Dragons from the same part of the field, and in a similar way – was a testament to Ponga’s sublime rugby league instincts, and subliminal sense of timing. He didn’t add the extras, though, keeping the Knights to a 10-8 lead as the last ten minutes approached. For a while, both teams went neck and neck, but the Dragons started to get the upper edge, culminating with a linebreak from Norman thirty seconds out from the siren.

For a moment, this looked like a certain try, as Norman kicked for Dufty, who would have crashed over then and there if Lee hadn’t stuck out a boot and deflected the Steeden back via SKD to Pearce, who gathered it up for all he was worth. The Knights had hung on, and were still ahead, but this last sequence just showed how hungry the Dragons were for points – and it was that hunger that would sustain them when the game went into extra time.

It took them a while to get there, though, since they were decidedly depleted when they returned to the field. A forward pass from Hunt on play two was the nadir, leading onto a handling error from Ravalawa and then an offside penalty for Post. Still, the Dragons are one of those teams that often thrive on a bit of adversity, so this low patch may have been what they needed to start getting things going on their left edge, resulting in two big plays that almost resulted in more points.

The first was a cut-out pass from Dufty to Lafai on the fourth tackle that mirrored Ponga’s sterling effort at the start of the game, and demanded three Newcastle defenders to hold the big winger above the ground. On the next tackle, Norman chipped at the line, where Ponga got the footy to ground, resulting in a dropout for the Dragons, despite some justified frustration from Pearce about the contact made with the St. George defence before the Steeden reached Ponga’s hands.

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If Pearce was frustrated, then Norman was ropable midway into the next set, when he sent a looping harbor bridge try assist to Pereira that was called forward. In slow motion, it was easily legitimate, but in one of the optical illusions that can sometimes plague referees on the ground the length and height of the pass made it seem as it it had travelled further forward.

Despite two big efforts on the Dragons’ left edge, the right side of the Newcastle edge had endured. St. George now needed to defend like their life depended on it, and Lafai set the scene with a huge effort on Lino on the fourth tackle of the next set, laying the platform for a combined hit on Klemmer that saw the big ex-Bulldog spill the footy a moment later. With ball in hand, the Dragons considered another play on the left, following a hit and spin from Sims on Saifiti on the second tackle, but then quickly opted for a change in attack and shifted the footy to the right.

It was the right decision, as Dufty now fused both his and Norman’s earlier wide passes for a parabolic ball to Ravalawa, who slammed through Edrick Lee to smash down the second and last try for St. George. Over the next few sets the Knights really started to tire, but they were able to level the score when Pearce booted through a penalty kick following some pressure on the kicker from Sims, leading to some big words from Klemmer as well, who was surely still smarting from spilling the footy just before Ravalawa’s try.

The last part of the game saw more attempted field goals than in the last few weeks of footy combined. In the final ten minutes, the Knights had the best field position, but also failed to take advantage of that field position, with Pearce making an incredible three attempts, all of which eluded the space between the posts. It cemented Round 4 as a nightmare for some of the NRL’s most reliable kickers, putting Pearce alongside Reynolds and Martin, the other two big booters to suffer in golden point over the last couple of days.

The momentum shifted back towards the Dragons during overtime. While Norman had only managed one field goal attempt during the last ten minutes, he made two attempts, and Hunt made one attempt, until he finally booted through the critical point eight minutes after play restarted. Of all the cathartic – and heartbreaking – close finishes to Round 5, this was the most intense, and so it was an appropriate ed such a hardly fought week of football, and such an agonising time for some of the game’s big kickers.

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Both teams will therefore be looking for a better result when they rock up in Round 5. Obviously, the Knights will be keen for a home win when they take on the Sea Eagles on Saturday afternoon. But the Dragons will also be anxious for a more decisive, less precarious victory over the Bulldogs when they host them at Jubilee on Sunday night. With the Dogs having lost in golden point, and the Dragons having won in golden point, this is one of the more dramatic prospects of Round 5, and promises to be a turning-point in the early part of the 2019 season for both teams.

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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