The Knights were first at the end of Round 1, and the Tigers fourth, so it was quite a high-stakes match when they met for only their second clash at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday afternoon, despite escalating uncertainty about whether the 2020 NRL season will continue. It was strange to see the most communal venue in the game so empty, but we’d had a bit of time to get used to it after yesterday’s one-point match between the Roosters and the Sea Eagles, while the Tigers had requested fans to send in photos and memorabilia to help them get motivated in the sheds. Both teams put in pretty solid opening sets, rolling the football up and down the field, until David Nofoaluma missed a Mitchell Pearce kick, allowing Edrick Lee to leap above him and bat the ball back for Enari Tuala to scoop it up and score.
As with some of the other games this round, the home team seemed disadvantaged by playing at a home venue without fans, since there was none of the energy here that you’d normally get from the Tigers at Leichhardt, with only two defenders competing with four Knights for the football in the corner. Pearce bombed again to the left on the restart, and for a moment it looked like Nofoaluma might bobble it again, but instead he managed to leap above Lee, secure the Steeden and then boldly offload to Corey Thompson right on the line. Benji now kicked the ball deep on the last play, forcing Kalyn Ponga to stagger back to the try line to collect it, but the Knights got out of their own end pretty quickly after Josh Aloiai leaked the first penalty of the afternoon, for a hand in the ruck on the very first play.
Ponga made his first big run of the afternoon a tackle later, collecting the footy out of dummy half, and making a big left step to get away from Elijah Taylor, forcing Luke Garner to come in and clean up the damage. The Knights headed left rapidly, and David Klemmer straightened up the play in front of the posts, before the Tigers conceded their penalty try of the year, as Mitch Barnett chased down a Jayden Brailey kick, but was held back by Josh Reynolds. Reynolds has brought some big Belmore energy this year, and already seems more galvanised than at any point since leaving the Bulldogs, but even his best effort here couldn’t save the Tigers, who were ten down when Ponga added his first conversion. Newcastle now had two tries off two kicks, while the Tigers made the first incomplete set shortly after, when Benji’s best run so far was followed by Billy Walters losing the footy to Klemmer.
However, in one of the rapid turnarounds that would have driven a Leichhardt crowd mad, Nofoaluma intercepted Ponga’s next pass, accelerating beyond Brailey and then Pearce to put down the first four points for the Tigers, before Benji’s conversion bounced off the post but ricocheted between the uprights – a serendipitous Leichhard moment. The Tigers settled into a groove with one of their best sets on the restart, and applied the same energy when the Knights got the football back, forcing the first error from the away team after Barnett made a forward pass. They then headed right on the third play, where Thompson managed to get an offload away to Joey Leilua, only for the ex-Raider to put it down, gifting Newcastle one of the biggest letoffs of the game so far.
Still, the Tigers recovered with one of their best finishes yet, opting to run the ball on the last for the first time, as Reynolds got smashed by Pearce two-thirds of the way up the field, but still managed to get the footy across to Robert Jennings, who offloaded for Thompson to kick back in goal, where a dangerous bounce forced Kurt Mann to pop the ball into touch for the first dropout of the game. Adam Doueihi responded with a strong run up the right side, poking his nose through the line and then taking a quick tap after Klemmer was penalised for holding down, before barnstorming his way to the line. He came close to crashing over, as did Reynolds on the left edge, but the game ended with the Tigers shifting right again, where all their energy fizzled, as Benji sent his poorest pass of the match across to Joey Leilua, and Leilua responded with an uninspired grubber off Edrick Lee’s knee.Embed from Getty Images
Things got even worse for Benji and Joey when Lachlan Fitzgibbon broke between them on the next set, thanks to a deft pair of passes from Klemmer and Pearce, and then shifted the footy over to Mann, who got a bit of joy after conceding the dropout a minute before, by putting down the third Newcastle try. With Ponga adding the extras, the Knights were ten ahead, as Pearce stepped up with a pair of big bombs that put big pressure on the Tigers that was only partly allayed when Tuala was pinged for a second effort at the half hour mark. Finally, a pair of errors from Benji and Zane Musgrove, and then a ball strip from Musgrove, set up Ponga to boot through the first penalty kick of the afternoon, putting Newcastle beyond a converted try lead despite Benji amping up his kicking game during these critical moments.
Yet in another one of the sudden turnarounds from the Tigers that would mark this game, Reynolds collected a harbor bridge pass from Benji on the last set before the siren, and made a run at the line, where he got on the outside of Aiden Guerra, and then managed to offload to Thompson just before Connor Watson wrestled him to ground. Full credit goes to the Tigers fullback for pre-empting the play too, as the home team returned pumped from the sheds, and grew in confidence when Watson made the first mistake, getting them the scrum feed halfway up the park. Benji made a restless run on the third play, getting away from both Watson and Fitzgibbon, but Ponga still managed to clean up his final kick and get Newcastle rolling again, before history repeated itself in the most painful way possible for the Tigers.
Once again, Lee and Nofoaluma contested the high ball on the Tigers’ left edge, but this time Nofa didn’t even get a hand to the football, as the big winger jumped up in the air, caught Pearce’s kick clean, and surged forward to put down the next four points for Newcastle. The Knights had regained their ten point lead, although the Tigers bounced back pretty quickly when Hymel Hunt lost the ball into Michael Chee Kam and Billy Walters, who scooped it up, drew in Gehamat Shibasaki, and shifted it across to Reynolds. Unmarked on the left edge, Grub built up enough speed to curve around and score between the uprights, setting up Benji for the conversion that narrowed the scoreline to four again – the perfect culmination of Reynolds’ energy so far in 2020.
Still, the Knights came back even more rapidly, as Doueihi failed to contain the next kick, allowing a pack effort from Newcastle to drag Walters over the line, resulting in a dropout rather than a restart. It was pretty disheartening for the Tigers, then, when they conceded their most humiliating try of the afternoon, following strong runs from Mann, Daniel Saifiti and Tim Glasby on the opening plays. Receiving the footy in the left corner, Ponga looked around him to see that all of the Tigers defenders were gathered on the right side of the ruck, meaning he didn’t have to contend with much pushback when he crashed over for the next Newcastle try. The hosts now needed to stop playing catch-up by making some big attacking moves – and they started with a pair of good runs as the last quarter approached.
The first was a fifteen metre advance from Aloiai late in the tackle count, and the second a superb linebreak from Thompson up the left side of the park on the next set. Aloiai now followed Thompson’s run with a tough short-side play on the fourth, before Guerra was pinged for not being square as marker, as Reynolds clamoured for a sin bin. Finally, Benji sent a short ball across to Luciano Leilua to slam through Mann and Tuala, and reach out a hand for the next Tigers try. The game was closer than it had been for a long time, but the Knights quickly put another twelve points between them with two superb plays – or two poor defensive reads from the Tigers. The first came up after Herman Ese’ese was held up over the line, and saw Pearce simply split the defence in two before rolling through Reynolds to put down the ball.Embed from Getty Images
The second was even more frustrating for the Tigers, whose defence seemed non-exstent as Tuala scooped up a Pearce grubber as it sailed past Benji, and then scored a double. There was a sense of finality about this try, since Tuala had also scored the opening four points, and the Tigers started to decline from here, with Reynolds making an error before Musgrove was pinged for a second effort. The hosts got their last big chance about five minutes from the end, when Ponga made a shoulder charge, but this last bit of possession came to nothing when Joey Leilua passed the footy straight to Newcastle early in the tackle count. Tempers flared a minute later, when Joey made an error, and Luciano got a penalty for being a bit too enthusiastic in the scuffle that broke out subsequently, which didn’t obey too many social distancing rules.
To add insult to injury, Watson smashed through a tackle later, beating four or five defenders, including a combined effort from Benji and Joey, before shrugging off Doueihi right on the line. While Ponga missed the conversion, this was still a resounding win for the Knights, and the Tigers struggled right until the end, as Doueihi took out their collective frustration with a dangerous tackle two minutes from the siren. They’re slated to host the Bulldogs next week, and the Knights are meant to be travelling to Shark Park to take on Cronulla, but this may well be the final match of 2020 for some time, especially with New South Wales set to shut down essential services next week, and the AFL having suspended their competition this same afternoon. Both teams will be drawing deep on this match, then, next time they have football in hand – wherever and whenever that may be.