It was 12th against 13th when the Knights hosted the Cowboys in Newcastle for a bright afternoon of Saturday football. After not getting a single linebreak against the Eels last week, the Knights got three in the first nine minutes, two of which led to tries. The first came from Conor Watson, and was quickly succeeded by an error from Watson, but Newcastle got their next chance soon after, when a slow peel from Gavin Cooper set up David Klemmer for a big carry, and a rare offload, before the Knights shifted the footy across to their left edge a couple of tackles later.
From there, Kalyn Ponga collected the ball from Mitchell Pearce, dummying left, and then making a huge left foot step to accelerate away from Scott Drinkwater and Shane Wright, before dashing through the hole between Jake Granville and Matt Scott, who was still on the ground from the previous play with Pearce. It was a brilliant way for Ponga to silence his critics after his lacklustre game against Parra last week, and a strong start for the Knights, who had been rolling since the opening set.
With Mason Lino adding the extras, Newcastle were 6-0, and determined to break a six-game losing streak. A tackle into the next set, Pearce went from assister to tryscorer, breaking through the line and making his way up the middle of the field. While Lachlan Fitzgibbon surged up on his left for support, Pearce was able to go it alone, accelerating away from the North Queensland chase to slam down four points beneath the uprights, with only Jordan Kahu coming close to halting him.
This was Pearce’s first try since Origin 3, and it had an Origin-like intensity about it, recalling some of his finer moments for the Knights from the first half of the 2019 season. He was a bit less organized, however, a couple of sets later, when he was caught in goal by a Drinkwater grubber, and then gave away more field position on the dropout with a high tackle. A pass from Jake Clifford was almost the try assist the Cowboys needed, but Coen Hess fumbled the footy at the critical moment under pressure from Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
The first North Queensland try came off the worst call of the game – a penalty on Klemmer for being offside, despite the fact that Cooper had put the ball down cold a second before. An over-risky offload from Jordan Maclean cost them possession, but they regained again, twice, after successive errors from Tautau Moga and Mitchell Pearce. This was the riskiest period of the match for Newcastle, especially once the Cows got yet another set of six after Pearce touched the Steeden in motion.Embed from Getty Images
After so much field position, it felt almost inevitable when Clifford scored a couple of tackles later, continuing the momentum of his own near-try assist to Hess earlier in the match. Once again, the play unfolded on the left edge, where the young halfback dummed to the left, broke through a tackle spearheaded by Lino, and then scooted through the last line of the Newcastle defence, where SKD barely got a hand to him before he slammed the football down.
Jordan Kahu promptly added the extras to make it a six point game, but Jacob Saifiti came close to resuming Newcastle’s twelve point lead a couple of sets later. Collecting a short ball from Watson out of dummy half, the punchy prop busted through a combined tackle from Scott Bolton and Francis Mola before reaching the ball out to the try-line. Due to a question about whether Saifiti had managed to ground it cleanly, the Bunker replayed the action, only to find a different issue – Mitch Barnett remaining in the defensive line, and preventing Bolton sliding across.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, however, since Ponga now made up for this frustrated try in the most spectacular way. In the final minutes of the first half, he put in some of his best footwork of the afternoon, before regathering the ball a tackle later, to start a right sweep that ended with Moga lobbing it over the sideline. Yet with Hess making an error straight out of the scrum, the Knights – and Ponga – had one more chance before the siren rang out.
They made the most it, with Pearce and then Lino shifting the footy across to Ponga, who executed a right edge linebreak and got the ball down, despite a big combined effort from Kahu and Hess. Ponga had managed to bookend the first half with some of his best footy in weeks, and the Knights headed to the sheds on a high after Lino resumed their eighteen point lead with a magnificent kick from the sidelines.
The kicks weren’t so good for the Cowboys after the break. A few minutes in, Morgan booted the ball in goal, where Clifford would have been set to score, were it not for a horrendous bounce that allowed Moga to bring it back into the field of play. Soon after, Kyle Feldt was also defied by a bad bounce at the tail end of a Tom Opacic kick, keeping the scoreline to 18-6 as the pressure started to mount. On the other side of the Steeden, the Knights also started to flag a bit, culminating with Conor Watson being taken off the park with an injury thirteen minutes in.Embed from Getty Images
Just as Ponga had taken control at the end of the first stanza, now Pearce took control with a try and try assist. The try came when he received the footy ten metres out from the line, taking the full brunt of Bolton and Granville while reaching out his right hand to bring the ball down beside the posts. This immediately recharged Newcastle, putting them back in touch with the momentum of the opening forty, while allowing Pearce to showcase his brute strength and courage much as his earlier try had showcased his speed and acceleration.
While Lino easily added the extras from right in front of the posts, the breeze got the better of Morgan, whose kick landed out on the full, as Pearce got the Knights rolling again from halfway up the park. A few tackles later, Pearce made a try assist that was just as brilliant as his try, accelerating into the line and double pumping to draw in Cooper and distract Hess. Mitch Barnett read the play perfectly, receiving the footy just as his halfback decelerated to cross over untouched for another four points.
Lino now made the best sideline kick of the game – you can see why he’s only missed two this year – getting the Knights a 30-6 lead, and bringing them to ninth on the live ladder. SKD was the next player to step up, gathering the Steeden in goal, and escaping from what initially looked like a dropout threat to bring it halfway up the field. Eluding a barnstorming run from Maclean, he was only brought down by Opacic, but not without disheveling Drinkwater enough for him to put in a flop.
At the other end of the field, Pearce repeated his earlier try assist to Barnett. While the big second-rower didn’t make it a double, the psychological impact of seeing Pearce repeat this combination must have played a part in Sione Mata’utia’s big run a second later, especially since he also barged through Kahu and Hess like Ponga had done for his try at the end of the first half. By the Mata’utia scored, the North Queensland defensive line was in tatters, while the game was starting to resemble the Eels’ decimation of Gold Coast the night before, but with an even bigger lead.
Seven minutes out from the end, the Knights scored again, thanks to a pair of passes from Pearce and Lino that saw Barnett take control of the football about ten metres out from the line. Barnett seemed to be all wrapped up in the tackle, and Lino was simply waiting behind him for the next play when he received a surprise offload. Still, he capitalised on it immediately, scooting through the defence, who were just as surprised as he was, before putting down the footy and converting his own try.Embed from Getty Images
With five minutes left on the clock, this no longer felt like a competition, but a Newcastle carnival – a celebration in which every player was being given a chance to step into the spotlight and shine. The home fans couldn’t have asked for a better way to win after six weeks of heartbreak, while the margin was so great that this will certainly be the last note of the Newcastle season if they don’t manage to make their way into the eight by the time that finals footy comes around.
That said, the red and blue army will be raring for a win when they travel to Campbelltown to meet the Tigers next week, especially since the Tigers’ finals hopes are even more precarious and desperate at this point in the season. Meanwhile, this match caps off a pretty disappointing year for North Queensland during their first season without Johnathan Thurston in over a decade, and they’ll be playing for pride as much as points when they host the Panthers at 1300SMILES next Friday night.