ROUND 23: Wests Tigers v. Newcastle Knights (Campbelltown Stadium, 24/8/19)
It was tenth against eleventh when the Knights travelled to Campbelltown to take on the Tigers on Saturday night. More important, perhaps, these are the two teams that have waited the longest for a finals appearance – eight years for the Tigers, six years for the Knights – making this game as urgent, in its own way, as the Broncos-Rabbitohs showdown the night before. Newcastle got the first burst of field position following an offside penalty from Ryan Matterson, and nearly got the first try, at the tail end of a crossfield kick from Mitchell Pearce that was put down by Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
Unfortunately, Bradman Best made contact with the footy before it arrived at Fitzgibbon, and the Tigers survived, before regathering with a Benji Marshall kick out of dummy half at the end of their next set. The bounce was a nightmare for Pearce, careening right over his head before landing so unpredictably in goal that several players paused, frantically waiting for it to become manageable. The onfield ruling was that Hymel Hunt and Matterson had ground it simultaneously, but the replay showed that the ex-Rooster had clearly got there first, giving the Tigers the first try.
This was a great way for Matterson to correct his earlier error, putting the home team six ahead once Paul Momirovski added the extras. A few minutes later, they made it a two point lead, thanks to an offside penalty from Daniel Saifiti, before scoring one of the most controversial tries this year – one that will surely be debated and discussed in weeks to come, both during specific analyses of this game and also as part of wider conversations about consistency and communication between the Bunker, the refs and the fans.
The play started with a Luke Brooks kick on the left edge. Kalyn Ponga was in place to clean it up, but Esan Marsters came in and prevented him from having a reasonable chance at securing it. While you could – perhaps – argue that Mason Lino had got between Ponga and Marsters, and taken Marsters off his line, it was pretty clear, from the replay, that Marsters had been playing the ball rather than the man, since he never once set his eyes on the Steeden, instead focusing all his energy on preventing Ponga from getting to it.
This should have been a penalty against Marsters, then, but the Bunker somehow deemed that the error came from Ponga, meaning that the football was still alive for Robert Jennings to scoop up and slam down. It was the kind of call that can determine the momentum of a game, and sure enough Momirovski added the extras once again, while Ponga kicked out on the full on the restart, setting the Tigers up for another bout of field position.Embed from Getty Images
Soon after, Momirovski stepped even more into the spotlight, intercepting a Ponga pass right on the Tigers’ line and making his way two-thirds up the field before he was brought to ground by a desperate tackle from David Klemmer. Yet the Tigers dug deep into the momentum of this linebreak with a rapid sweep to the left edge a few plays later, where Corey Thompson contributed the best try assist of the night so far – a big left foot step paired with a right arm offload around the corner to Marsters, who now went from try assister to try scorer.
Once again, Momirovski added the extras, but the Tigers weren’t done with this splendid string of points, as Brooks now showcased some of his best judgement and leadership in 2019. Gathering the footy from Benji in the middle of the field, Brooks dummied a couple of times, capitalizing on decoy runs from both Elijah Taylor and Matt Eisenhuth to set up the Knights for a wide ball out the back, only to opt for a short, no-look pass to Oliver Clark. All that the the big prop had to do was execute a right-hand fend on Lino to smash over the line and score another four points.
In slow motion, you could see just how dexterously Brooks had executed the play, leading with his eyes as much as his hands, and consistently looking back down the field to draw Sione Mata’utia in off his line. With Momirovski adding another two points the Tigers were at 24-0, while the crowd roared as Josh Reynolds returned to the NRL in black and gold, making his mark immediately by forcing an error from Pearce, and then trapping Ponga in goal at the tail end of a brilliant Benji kick.
Reynolds himself came close to scoring at the end of the next set, where he booted the footy at short range out of dummy half – straight through Josh King’s legs – but was brought to ground before he could get the ball down. Nevertheless, he forced a dropout from Ponga, leading to another four points for the Tigers, at the end of a superb sequence that started with another no-look pass from Brooks to Clark. This time Clark was successfully tackled, but a second later Benji poised a crossfield chip beautifully, allowing Nofoaluma to catch it on the full without even breaking stride.
Momirovski added yet another conversion on the back of Nofa’s try and the Tigers were now 30-0 – their biggest ever half time lead at Campbelltown Stadium. They got two dropouts in the first ten minutes after the break, and while Newcastle survived the first one – just – they capitulated for the second one, allowing Nofoaluma to come away with the second try in what would become a hat trick. This time, the magic ingredient was a wide ball from Brooks to Benji, followed by a compressed harbor bridge pass from Benji to Nofoaluma in the right corner.Embed from Getty Images
From there, Nofa kicked to himself, looping out of the field of play before rejoining the footy before it bounced over the dead ball line. With no chase or threat from Ponga, the only real pressure came from Bradman Best, who had been the most energetic Newcastle player on the field during his debut NRL game, starting with three hit-ups in the first five minutes and only accelerating from there. It was weird to see Ponga give up on the play, and suggested that the Knights’ heart wasn’t really in preventing the Tigers scoring again as soon as they got a touch of the football.
Sure enough, Nofa got his first career hat trick a moment later, on the back of another dazzling display of leadership from Brooks, and a deception play that was every bit as good as his short ball to Clark in the first half. Proving what he can achieve when he runs the footy, Brooks drifted to the right side of the park, moving the Steeden from two hands to one hand and then back to two again, while shaping to kick a couple of times, before catching the Knights napping with a pass to Benji.
Benji responded in kind, dancing around the right edge of the park like it was 2005 before putting Nofa across for a hat trick with a brilliant bullet pass. While Momirvoski missed the extras, the Tigers were still 40-0, inching closer and closer to their biggest ever win-margin – 52 points – both against the Bulldogs in Round 24, 2005 and Round 21, 2008. They got a bit closer twelve minutes out, when Benji collected the footy on the right edge, dummied inside, then sent it out to Michael Chee Kam, who got six more on the board once Momirovski had added the kick.
Guerra got the Knights’ first and only try with seven minutes on the clock, but it barely qualified as a consolation after such a massive onslaught from the home team. This was a pretty sobering finish for Newcastle after their spectacular form against the Cowboys last week, and they’ll be looking for a big win – and a much bigger game from Pearce and Ponga – when they host the Titans at Hunter Stadium next week. On the other side of the Steeden, the Tigers have inched that little bit closer to the eight, and will be keen for a barnstorming performance when they play the Dragons at the SCG on Sunday afternoon.
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