The Knights had doubled the Warriors in New Zealand, and the Bulldogs had lost by eight points to the Sea Eagles at Brookvale, when they met at Suncorp on Saturday night for the fourth game of Magic Round. This was David Klemmer’s first match against the Dogs since joining Newcastle, while Nick Meaney, Jack Cogger, Herman Ese’ese and James Gavet were also playing their previous clubs, giving the game a bit of a personal vibe, especially since the Knights hadn’t won a game against Canterbury-Bankstown since the 2013 finals.
Kieran Foran was also making an early return after five weeks off the field with an ankle syndesmosis that was originally predicted to keep him out for up to twelve weeks – a much-needed rallying-point for a Bulldogs outfit that were keen to turn the first part of their 2019 season around. The match started with a big collision between Dylan Napa and David Klemmer, and Adam Elliott took the second tackle after being named for the opening lineup, while Kalyn Ponga had no trouble under Jeremy Marshall-King’s first kick.
Newcastle amped up the defence on the Dogs’ second set, trapping Meaney as soon as he’d gathered the high ball, and putting enough pressure on Napa for him to cough up the footy a couple of tackles later. The Knights couldn’t make the most of this attacking opportunity, though, as Mitchell Pearce failed to send Tim Glasby through the line on the left edge, and Conor Watson only just cleaned up a messy pass from Danny Levi out to the right, before Meaney let an overlong kick bounce into touch to get his men seven tackles.
Not only did Newcastle survive, they got an extra tackle on the next set, when Edrick Lee caught a Cogger kick in goal – a good way for the big winger to celebrate his 100th game in his home city. Pearce now stepped up, sending a kick to the Bulldogs’ left edge defence, where a knock-on from Jayden Okunbor got the Knights the repeat set they needed for their first try. Pearce contributed a superb catch-and-pass on the restart, setting up Kalyn Ponga to drive deep into the line before flicking the footy to Hymel Hunt, who crossed over untouched for the first four points.
Hunt had now scored in consecutive games, helping the Knights to settle back into the groove against the Warriors last week, while Ponga’s kick was always going to slice through the posts, putting the Knights six ahead with eight minutes on the clock. Meaney did better than Okunbor under Pearce’s next kick, and managed to stay in the field of play after Mitch Barnett spearheaded an effort to drag him over the sideline, but the Knights still put in a fairly strong set after scoring points, even if they did lost some momentum by leaking the first two penalties of the game moments later – a slow peel from Connor Watson, and a ball strip from Tim Glasby.Embed from Getty Images
Kieran Foran responded with the best kick of the game so far, angling the Steeden off the side of his boot to trap Ponga in goal, forcing the first dropout of the afternoon. Tolman and Napa took the first two runs, Cogger dummied and tried to break through the line, and Chris Smith straightened the play on the fourth, before Will Hopoate was cleaned up on the right edge, inducing the Dogs into a rapid left sweep that once again ended with an encounter between Foran and Ponga. This time, Foran opted for a deft chip, forcing Ponga to pop the Steeden into touch instead of risking losing it in goal.
Once again, Napa and Tolman took the first two hit-ups, creating a sense that the Bulldogs were consolidating. While Pearce responded with a big tackle on Cogger, Canterbury got yet another burst of field position when Watson was called offside, making it paramount that the Dogs score the next points – and score them soon. Instead, Kalyn Ponga and Daniel Saifiti dragged Okunbor into touch just as he was poised to put down points, bringing this period of sustained possession to an abrupt end.
After defending four strong sets from the Bulldogs, and with their first touch of the football in five minutes, the Knights were as pumped as if they’d scored a try, and got some much-needed breathing-space when Ponga booted the ball over the sideline at the end of their next set. By contrast, the next Canterbury set didn’t have any of the urgency of their previous accumulation of field position, while a crowding penalty for Chris Smith a few minutes later provided Newcastle with the platform they needed for the next try.
The Mitchell Pearce show now got going, as the ex-Roosters almost sent Jesse Ramien through, on the third tackle, right in front of the posts, before kicking on the last. He saw the footy ricochet off the defence, kicked a second time, and chased down the ball to score the next try right beside the post, edging his way past Meaney to get his hand on the Steeden just in time. Pearce had effectively assisted himself, showcasing his running, kicking and grounding game in one spectacular sequence that lifted the Knights’ energy more than any other moment in the match.
Nevertheless, they didn’t score again until a minute before the siren, despite a superb linebreak from Lee thirty minutes in, and a pair of dropouts shortly after – the first kicked by Foran, the second by Okunbor. In the Bulldogs’ last statement of the first stanza, Elliott and Okunbor put in one of the best trysavers so far on Pearce, only for Hopoate to lose the footy while trying to regain it at the end of the set. Pearce’s rejoinder was a superb assist to Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who stormed at the line, made as if to offload to Watson, but instead rolled over himself.Embed from Getty Images
It was the perfect way for Fitzgibbon to celebrate his 50th match, and a reflection of his growth this year, since he’d been tempted into a similar offload earlier in the season, instead of trusting himself to take the tackle or slam over. While Ponga might have missed the conversion, Fitzgibbon had ended the first half with a perfect combination of stealth and strength, as a very dejected looking Canterbury outfit trotted into the sheds without having put a single point on the board, and without coming from behind in the second half since Round 16 last year, against the Knights.
Things didn’t look all that promising for the Dogs at the start of the second stanza, as Pearce bookended a Cogger bomb with a pair of bombs of his own, before Jackson and Cogger were pinged for a ball strip and not being square at marker respectively. While Canterbury didn’t concede too much possession, the Knights amped up their defense, driving the blue and white army back towards their own line, until Jeremy Marshall-King was forced to kick from the thirty metre line for the Dogs’ most desperate set of the second half so far, only getting the footy ten metres over the halfway marker.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Reimis Smith abruptly got his team back on the track with the biggest one-man effort of the game so far. As if realising the critical role that Pearce had played in rallying his team’s spirits, Smith intercepted a pass from the Newcastle halfback out to the Knights’ left edge, reaching out his right hand to secure the football before running the length of the field to put down the first four points for Canterbury, while also preventing Pearce from assisting Edrick Lee for what would have been a near-certain try.
Saving and scoring a try in the same magnificent moment, Smith outsped everyone except Ponga, but even Ponga started to decelerate for the last stage of the sprint, since it was clear he wasn’t going to get within five metres of the Canterbury winger. In fact, he was never going to get to Smith – the point of his run was to keep him out to the sideline, forcing Meaney to contend with a challenging conversion angle that kept the Bulldogs to four points as the Steeden ricocheted off the left upright.
Still, this try had the potential to be a momentum-changer, since the Dogs had – literally – intercepted what appeared to be a Newcastle escalation over the first ten minutes of this second half. They got a boost on the first tackle of the restart, when Ese’ese was pinged for a hand in the ruck, and could have regained control of the game if they’d managed to score then and there, despite being a quarter of Newcastle at 4-16. They got the next best thing, when a great Cogger kick forced Pearce to ground the footy in goal, setting them up for the first dropout since the siren.Embed from Getty Images
Pearce went long with the kick, Sauaso Sue took the first carry, and the Dogs got a fresh set when Shaun Kenny-Dowall knocked on the footy while contesting Okunbor under the high ball. Canterbury now had a second sustained bout of field position to mirror their four sets in the first half, but they had to do something better with it if they were going to break the Newcastle defence, especially when they got yet another chance following a slow peel from Danny Levi. A tackle later, Sue tried to barge over beneath the posts, before Foran broke through the defence on the left edge to reach out his hand and plant the football to ground.
This should have been the defining moment of the game for Canterbury, but the try was called back after Adam Elliott was deemed to have made an obstruction in backplay. Nevertheless, Mitch Barnett had been pinged moments before for an offside penalty – and so this was crunch time for the Dogs, who had to make the most of all this luck or else capitulate to the Knights’ defence as they had in the first half. To their credit, they consolidated immediately, as Foran made up for his missed try by making the most of a defensive misread from the Knights, running in deep and late to start a rapid right edge sweep that ended with Hopoate crashing over.
Foran’s vision and spontaneity seemed to lift his team much as Pearce’s self-assisted try had in the first forty, especially since Meaney pulled off the sideline conversion this time around. With ten unanswered points, it felt like the Dogs might go for three consecutive tries, as all their big workhorses intensified on the following set, before wrapping up Ponga as soon as he had secured Cogger’s last-tackle kick. By this stage, the Bulldogs had enjoted 68% of possession in the second half, but they lost a bit of momentum over the next part of the game, only really regaining their mojo when Montoyo broke through the line on the left edge at the sixty-eighth minute.
For a moment, this looked like the start of a magnificent comeback, as Montoya fended off Ramien, and offloaded to Chris Smith, who would have sent it inside if Pearce hadn’t put up his hands to block the pass. It was a knock-on for Pearce, but a saved try for the Knights, who recovered even more rhythm when Smith made a handling error a minute later. Depsite an error from Ponga, and an escorts penalty from Pearce, Newcastle put down the final try, as Ponga slammed through three minutes out from the siren to bring his team to a hard-won 10-22 victory.
The Knights now have their first win over the Bulldogs since the 2013 finals – yet another milestone in their long journey back from one of their most challenging periods in club history – and should feel pumped for their away game against the Dragons at Glen Willow Oval in Mudgee next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty dispiriting loss for Canterbury-Bankstown, especially given their impressive surge midway through the second stanza, so they’ll be looking to capitalise more on Foran’s organisation and dexterity when they travel to Cbus to take on the Titans next Saturday afternoon.