Both teams had four wins and five losses, but the Dragons had lost three in a row, and the Knights had won three in a row, when they met for the third NRL match in Mudgee on Saturday afternoon. Jacob Saifiti got things rolling with a strong tackle on Paul Vaughan on the second St. George set, before Vaughan conceded the first penalty of the game, with a dangerous tackle, a moment later. Newcastle made the most of this early ripple, as Kalyn Ponga almost got on the outside of Tyson Frizell on the left edge, before Tim Glasby collected a Mitchell Pearce grubber right behind the posts to score the first four points of the match.
This was perfect timing from Pearce, and just the display of leadership the Knights needed to steel themselves against a predominantly red and white crowd at Glen Willow Oval. David Klemmer took the first hit-up on the restart, and then the fourth, before Jesse Ramien dragged Matt Dufty ten metres back after collecting the high ball. Two tackles later, Zac Lomax lost the footy during the play-the-ball, and the Knights ground in on the right side of the park, before a rapid right sweep forced Ben Hunt to dash in and clean up Ponga right in front of the posts.
Nevertheless, the Knights continued nosing around the ruck, laying the platform for Kurt Mann to send through an off-kilter grubber that looked like it might be a try assist, before Jordan Pereira collected it cleanly in the best defensive moment of the game so far. Still, Newcastle had the first dropout of the game, and consolidated their focus, despite the Dragons amping up their defence, with Pereira and Vaughan making mammoth opening efforts on Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Daniel Saifiti respectively. They couldn’t quench the Knights’ momentum, though, as a short ball from Pearce and Danny Levi brought Mann and Saifiti closer and closer to the line.
With another tackle Newcastle might have scored, but they elected to take it safe and go for goal when Tariq Sims was pinged for a slow peel, bringing them to an eight point lead once Ponga added the two from right in front of the posts. Meanwhile, St. George hadn’t yet played the ball in Newcastle’s half, while the Knights showed no signs of slowing down, since Klemmer once again took the first and fourth tackles, before Pearce’s kick sat up favourable for Dufty. This next set was critical for the Dragons, who had to make some significant headway into the Newcastle half if they were going to recoup some momentum.
Instead, the visitors showcased their best defence of the game so far, ending with Lachlan Fitzgibbon forcing Hunt to rush a kick that went too long, conceding seven tackles. Jesse Ramien’s skip on the second tackle seemed to capture the litheness of his team as a whole, and sure enough Ponga built on his backliner’s momentum a second later, dodging and weaving his way through three lines of St. George defence to score in his fifth consecutive match on the left edge of the park, before converting his own try to bring the Knights to an impressive fourteen point lead.Embed from Getty Images
Newcastle had now scored almost a point a minute, while the Dragons were yet to put a point on the board. Things went from bad to worse when Lomax kicked out on the full, gifting the Knights a burst of field position that brought them to the fifteen metre mark by the second tackle. Once again Ponga almost got around Frizell, before a short ball from Levi forced the Dragons’ big men to make their biggest effort so far in order to hold up Fitzgibbon over the line. From there, the Knights shifted rapidly to the right wing, where a Pearce bomb seemed to sail straight through Levi’s hands before being lost by Dufty, apparently keeping it live for a third Newcastle try.
Yet that just made it all the more disappointing for the away crowd when the Bunker replay showed that Levi had actually made contact with the footy despite an onfield ruling of try. This was the first time that the match had really turned in the Dragons’ favour, so it was crucial that they make the most of this next set, but once again they were let down by an unforced error – this time from Tim Lafai, who tried to pop an offload out in the midst of a three-man tackle, through the legs of Kurt Mann. Mikaele Ravalawa took out his team’s frustration with the biggest hit of the game on Pearce, but it barely made a dent, as the ex-Rooster got the Steeden away safely.
The nadir of St. George’s first forty came a second later, when a tricky pass from Hunt saw Frizell lose the footy right into the hands of the Newcastle defence. While Hunt saved face with a brilliant trysaver on Edrick Lee at the end of the next set, this was still a heart-in-mouth moment for the Dragons, who were in danger of letting Newcastle run away with the game if they made too many more errors. Perhaps it was already too late, as Ramien broke through the line on the next Knights set, and required a massive combined effort from Sims and Vaughan to stop him, before Jai Field was pinged for pushing Ponga away from the high ball.
No doubt the Newcastle fullback took a bit of a dive, but this was still a sign of desperation from Field, so it was a bit puzzling when the Knights opted to take the two instead of having another shot at the line – the same decision that the Titans had made against the Bulldogs the day before. The last thing the Dragons needed was another overlong kick from Hunt, and another seven tackle set for Newcastle, but that’s just what happened a set later – and Ponga made the most of it, breaking through the line even more spectacularly to score a double beneath the posts.
Full credit goes to Levi and Klemmer for big metres on the first two tackles, as well as to Pearce, in career-best form over the last month, who brought the footy right into the line before sending a superb short pass across to Ponga on his outside. It was his best assist of the night, and his fullback made the most of it, curving away from the defence, but showcasing considerably more strength than in his last splendid run, as he wrestled his way out of a challenging low tackle from Dufty and then managed to keep his elbow off the ground to avoid a double movement as he planted the Steeden down between the uprights with Luciano Leilua on his back.Embed from Getty Images
James Gavet was pumped to take his first run on the restart, and laid a good platform for Mitch Barnett, but the Dragons got a rare letoff when Hymel Hunt made a forward pass a few tackles later. This was the best attacking opportunity for the Red V so far, but the Knights stayed strong on the next set, regathering after a rapid change in direction from Frizell on the left edge, before converging on Hunt on the right, forcing the St. George halfback into an indecision about whether to run, kick or pass that culminated with a fairly unconvincing effort off the right boot that found touch without putting too much pressure on the Newcastle defence.
It was a big rallying-point for the Dragons, then, when Dufty managed to clean up a spiraling bomb from Pearce a set later, in the midst of one of the most rousing kick chases of the match from Newcastle. Once again, the Red V had glimpsed a little bit of momentum, but Ponga proved just as comfortable under Hunt’s kick, partly because only Lomax was able to rival the Knights’ previous chase. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Ponga was even more magnificent in attack, sending a beauty of a kick down field that sat up perfectly for him to chase it down, spin Dufty around in goal, and force another goal line dropout with six minutes on the clock.
A brief mixup between Herman Ese’ese and Kurt Mann, combined with a long kick from Hunt, meant the Knights had a bit of a slow start to this repeat set, but Mann compensated by storming through the line on the fourth tackle, taking advantage of a yawning hole in the St. George defence to score the fourth Newcastle try. The Knights had now scored the most points in the first half since they put 28 points on the Dragons in Round 16 2017, making it paramount for the home team that they score before heading into the sheds. Yet it wasn’t to be, despite the messiest period of the game for Newcastle in the buildup to the break, including an immediate handling error from SKD, followed by successive penalties for Barnett and Levi.
It said something about the Dragons’ game that they were still unable to score during these final minutes, and that they continued to struggle after being blasted in the sheds, as the Knights got the first two penalties of the second stanza after Field and McInnes were pinged for holding down and for a ball strip respectively. The visitors took a quick tap after Ese’ese had the ball stripped, but lost a bit of a steam on the next tackle, where Barnett had to run in and clean up a pass to nobody on the right edge. Nevertheless, James Gavet got things rolling by almost tumbling over the line on the third, before Pearce took the footy to the line once again, and floating a sublime harbor bridge pass for SKD to put down four more in the corner.
The putdown was almost as good as the pass, as SKD shifted the Steeden to his right hand and brought it around his body in a wide arc, relying on his propulsion to ground it just before his boot slid into touch. Ponga’s conversion careened off the right post, but this was still a devastating start to the second stanza for St. George, who already seemed to be beyond any real chance of winning, and now had to start playing for pride, and to motivate themselves for next week’s match against the Sharks. On the other side of the Steeden, this linkup between two ex-Roosters was yet another galvanising factor for the Knights in taking on the Chooks in Round 11.Embed from Getty Images
St. George got their next big chance when Pereira found space at the end of a rapid left sweep, but Newcastle responded with one of their most epic defensive efforts of the game – a five-man pack effort that saw the red and white winger dragged into touch from about five metres in field. Fuelled by this turnaround, the Knights burrowed down the left edge on the next set, laying a platform for yet another spectacular linebreak from Ponga, who broke out of a Hunt tackle, and then made a big left step around Dufty, but was denied a try because of a minor obstruction from Fitzgibbon on Frizell, who never had a chance of chasing him down.
Ponga had been denied a hat trick, but the speed and strength of his run, and his utter decimation of Hunt, was yet another worrying sign for the Dragons, while marking this as one of the very best games in the Newcastle fullback’s burgeoning career. Yet the Red V got their chance to be galvanised by a sudden reversal of fortune a minute later, when a leg pull from Ramien right on the line got them a much-needed repeat set. They didn’t do anything with it, though, as Tariq Sims dropped the footy in the face of an enormous tackle – an uncharacteristic bit of clumsiness from the big second-rower that spoke to the desperation and anxiety that was creeping over the St. George attack.
Both teams had failed to capitalise on letoffs, but the Knights weren’t going to make that mistake again, effectively repeating the shape of their previous set, but with Lee and Pearce now stepping into the spotlight left by Ponga. Once again the visitors headed left, thanks in part to a deft pair of offloads from Ramien and Fitzgibbon that shot Lee into open space. Realising that Lomax was in place to intercept a pass, Lee kicked at speed, and Pearce put in the fastest kick chase of the night to ground the footy in goal. Few plays have spoken so eloquently to the visionary leadership Pearce has brought to the Knights, in what felt like a flagship sequence – a rallying-point for Newcastle as they continue their long road to recapturing their former glory.
Meanwhile, the Dragons were on the verge of total humiliation, so they had to make the most of their most sustained period of field position so far, which came after a pair of offside penalties from Mata’utia and Ese’ese, bookended by slow peels from Watson and Mann that led to Mann being sent to the bin as the third quarter wound down. With Blake Lawrie injecting some fresh energy as James Graham was subbed of the park, St. George had to deliver now or perhaps concede a tryless game to the Knights, so you could almost hear the home crowd breathe a sigh of relief when Sims made up for his earlier knock-on by crashing over off a short ball from Hunt, who channelled Pearce by taking the footy right into the line for his first try assist.
Sixty minutes in and the Dragons had their first try, although they lost a bit of energy when Graham was taken off for an HIA. On their next set, they tried to mirror the Knights’ left edge bursts, but Newcastle contained them, culminating with Ponga leaping high in the air to neutralise a big bomb from Ben Hunt. The Dragons did better on their next set, thanks to a skittering, searching run from Luciano Leilua, who eluded several tackles at the thirty metre mark, escaping both Pearce and Barnett before starting a sweep to the right edge, where Hunt dummied and kicked for Lomax, who gathered a perfect bounce and slammed over the line for the fastest, strongest and most high octane try of the afternoon so far.Embed from Getty Images
So energetic was this four-pointer that, for a moment, it felt as if the Red V might make a significant dent in the Newcastle lead, especially when Field added a superb sideline conversion, and with Mann only a little over halfway through his sinbin stint. Yet these would be the last points that St. George would score, while the visitors would cap their achievement with another try and field goal, ending the game almost as rousingly as they’d begun it. Frizell showed his trademark run up through the ruck on the restart, as the Dragons started to glimpse some space on the right, but this time Hunt’s kick went touch in goal, before he lost the footy to a Klemmer strip on the first tackle of the next set.
This was the last major play from the Dragons before Mann returned to the field. With their five-eighth back, the Knights got back into first gear, and made the most of their very next penalty – an escort, or attempted escort, from Euan Aitken after Lee and Lomax contested a Pearce kick. Klemmer made big metres on the first tackle, Ponga and Mann changed the direction twice, and Pearce made a rapid play-the-ball, before Mann drew in three Dragons to hold him up on the right edge. Finally, Watson shifted the Steeden to Barnett, who was held up on the line, but offloaded back for Watson to sail over for another four points, setting up Ponga for one of his easiest conversions of the night.
Pearce cemented his leadership with a field goal fifty seconds out from the end – a brilliant way to end a match that ushered the Knights into the top five. They’ll be raring to continue this winning streak when they take on the Roosters next week, especially since their own ex-Roosters proved so critical to this win margin, with Pearce, in particular, putting in a performance to rival anything he did with Sydney City. Conversely, this was a pretty dispiriting loss for the Dragons, especially after the last three weeks, so they’ll be looking to come back big and claim the South when they host the Sharks at WIN Stadium on Sunday afternoon for the last match of Indigenous Round.