ROUND 3: Penrith Panthers v. Newcastle Knights (Campbelltown Stadium, 31/5/20)

Both Penrith and Newcastle were without their star halfbacks by five minutes into Sunday afternoon’s game, since Nathan Cleary was out for violating pandemic protocol, and Mitchell Pearce was taken off after a nasty head clash following a low tackle on Stephen Crichton. The Knights would also lose Connor Watson and Tim Glasby during the opening half of the game, but for now Pearce was replaced by Chris Randall on debut – the first big event after both teams had gone set for set for a couple of minutes – and the Knights received an early burst of field position after James Fisher-Harris was pinged for being offside downtown. This was the last pressure Newcastle applied for a while, though, as Brian To’o cleaned up the high ball, after some very good takes from Caleb Aekins in the opening sequences, and the Panthers settled into a dominant period of field position that lasted for the majority of the next forty minutes.

Penrith started with the first free-flowing play of the night, as Josh Mansour made a superb around-the-corner pass to Viliame Kikau on the left edge, and Jarome Luai forced the first dropout of the game, while Connor Watson was downed in backplay after trying to stop Kikau in his tracks. For the moment, he remained on the park, despite limping on his left leg, as Crichton broke straight through the line on the first play after Tex Hoy’s dropout. The mountain men accelerated to the right edge on the fourth play, and were back on the left by the last, where Sione Mata’utia cleaned up the final tackle – the first of a series of escalating Newcastle plays that would eventually stamp these opening twenty minutes as a masterpiece of defence by the visiting team, at least until Penrith managed to break their momentum and unleash a barrage of points. Meanwhile, Brodie Jones became the second Knight on debut, as Watson’s ankle got the better of him, and forced him to leave the field.

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Matt Burton kicked off the left foot at the end of the next set, and the Steeden landed right on its point, bouncing at an oblique angle back to Dean Whare, who had Tex Hoy and Edrick Lee to contend with as he made his way to the chalk. While Lee arrived a bit too late to make a difference, Hoy put in one of the best defensive stints of his career, getting his whole body under Whare, and then his hand under the footy, to prevent him scoring before the tackle was finished. This was exactly the superhuman effort from a young gun that Newcastle needed to recoup their rhythm in the absence of their senior playmakers, but Penrith still got another burst of possession when Hymel Hunt knocked on at the back end of another Burton kick. Yet the Knights responded with a pair of brilliant tackles – the first a Kurt-on-Kurt effort as Mann prevented Burton sending Capewell through the line, and then an epic pack defence to hold up Apisai Koroisau on the last.

Penrith got their own back when Kikau served Klemmer one of the biggest tackles he’d ever copped, and built more speed when Isaah Yeoh almost put James Tamou through the line two plays later. The apex of the Knights’ defence came at the end of this set, when Burton kicked on the last, Crichton leaped up and tapped the footy back to Luai, and Luai shifted it across to Mansour, who was totally unmarked on the wing, but suddenly found himself having to contend with Hymel Hunt and Enari Tuala, who slammed Sauce into touch to defuse what initially looked like a certain try. Wih the last few plays, Newcastle had almost turned the Penrith domination of field position into their own asset – a showcase for their defensive prowess – and got their last big hurrah when Mata’utia tackled Crichton to force a loose carry in the Knights’ half of the field.

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Newcastle almost got their first dropout at the end of the next set, after a superb catch-and-pass found Lee in the corner, but the ex-Raider now made the first of three poor moves with the boot, kicking straight to Aekins, who caught the footy on the full, forcing Newcastle to defend a twenty-metre restart. Once again, Penrith accelerated to the left corner, and this time it all came together, as Kikau collected the Steeden from Luai ten metres out, dodged around Bradman Best, lunged through a low tackle from Klemmer, and barely noticed Hoy as last line of defence. Meanwhile Pearce was back on the bench, in full gear, but didn’t show any indication of joining the game again, even as Glasby went down in backplay, after collecting an elbow in the face from Capewell. This time Jacob Saifiti subbed on, so there was a bit more experience on the park, but Newcastle’s bench was still dangerously depleted, especially with a full hour of football still to go, and no sign that Pearce or Watson would be safe to return.

No surprise, then, that the Knights looked pretty desperate at the end of the next set, when Lee stuck out his leg to contain a floating bomb from Burton, but just ended up conceding another set to Penrith, who’d clocked up 71% of possession by this point in the match. Three tackles later, Capewell received an early ball from Aekins, ricocheted off Mann, got his right hand free, and scored the Panthers’ second try, while Lee made his third foolish kick in three minutes, bringing a knee into Capewell’s head for a potential eight-point try. Sure enough, Crichton slotted through both goals – the first nine metres in from touch, and the second from right in front of the posts after Ben Cummins formally awarded the penalty for Lee’s late effort, bringing the Panthers to fourteen unanswered points. Mann tried to steady the ship with one of the Knights’ biggest bombs a few sets later, but it just led to the first Captain’s Challenge from the mountain men, and one of the best Challenges all year.

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The Challenge reversed a knock-on call for Crichton just before the high ball hit Hunt, revealing that he hadn’t made contact at all. From here, a series of bombs from Burton put additional pressure on the Knights, but Jacob Saifiti changed the rhythm fifteen seconds out from the siren, collecting a short ball from Glasby, capitalizing on a miss from Leota, and executing a deft right-foot step to slam the ball down between the posts. Despite 66% of possession, the Panthers were only eight ahead, after Hoy followed Crichton by shooting through his first NRL goal. Still, they got the upper hand as soon as they got back from the sheds, as Glasby’s leg started to give him trouble again, and Best lost the footy. Mann got his men some breathing space with a long kick, and Saifiti made a big tackle on Zane Tetevano, who got his own back next time the Newcastle no. 15 had ball in hand, while Hoy tried to kick for the sideline on the next set, only to hit the corner post, gifting Penrith another twenty-metre restart.

The longest period in the game without incident now ensued – about ten minutes of both teams going set for set, as Newcastle waited desperately for a Penrith error, or a chance at a repeat set. Finally, a Burton kick trapped Hoy in goal, as the Panthers got their first real burst of position since half-time. Leota, Tetevano and Capewell took the first three hit-ups before the mountain men shifted left, where Kikau tried to break through Mata’utia, drawing in a pack defence that also prevented Leota twisting and spinning over the line on the next play. On the final play, Luai sent the footy to Burton, and Burton lost it to Aekins, who flipped it back for Luai, for what initially looked like a knock-on, only for Lee to be penalised for a late tackle – quite a tough call, especially since the Knights made their first and last Captain’s Challenge trying to contest it.

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The Panthers now had another set, and once again the big men made the initial metres, with Tetevano and Yeoh taking the hits, before Lee attempted an intercept on the Panthers’ right edge that ended with a knock-on and a scrum feed for Penrith. Newcastle supporters must have wondered whether this was a start of another period of Panthers dominance, and whether Newcastle would showcase the same defensive stamina if it was, but they needn’t have worried, since the Knights now translated defence into points even more concisely than in the first stanza. First, they cleaned up Kikau and Yeoh, as Randall started to glimpse the all-time top tacklers on debut, albeit Lee was still forced to pop a Burton kick into touch for another dropout. This next set was crunch time for the Panthers, who had to score now, or else concede some momentum back to the Knights. James Fisher-Harris took the first hit-up, Crichton almost burst through one the left, and Kikau was held up on the third play, before Luai and Fish lost a bit of momentum on the fourth.

Finally, Burton kicked to the left edge, where Lee slid along the ground and caught the footy on the full, for a much-needed twenty-metre restart, capping off a master class in defence from the Newcastle Knights. Penrith had now made 42 tackles in the Knights’ twenty, and the Knights only 7 in Penrith’s twenty, so if Newcastle could score here they might just break Goliath – and score they did, with Best slamming over on the second tackle to get some closure and catharsis after his lost ball in the opening minutes after the break. The play started in the middle of the park with Glasby, who offloaded to Aidan Guerra, who in turn shifted the footy across to Mann for the sublime catch-and-pass that put Best over in the corner. While Hoy missed the conversion, the Knights scored again ten minutes later, this time off some superb vision from Lee, who’d reminded me a bit of Blake Ferguson over the course of this particular game – capable of extraordinary feats on the wing, but not always quite living up his potential.

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Seeing Lee deliver here therefore seemed to culminate the Knights’ incredible comeback, as he leaped up to catch a Mann bomb, bobbled it back into the air, but then regathered it, as if internalizing, revising and transcending the occasional mistakes that had punctured his game tonight. Even better, Lee executed a one-handed offload to Best, who slammed over for a double, locking up the score for the first time all night after Hoy missed his second straight conversion. With only ten minutes on the clock, and then only five minutes on the clock, it was field goal time, and Burton made the first effort with four minutes and forty-five seconds to go, sending the ball off the left foot and then watching, with his team mates, as it veered away to the left of the posts, as Hoy’s third conversion attempt had seven minutes before. With only four minutes left, it was starting to look like golden point, especially since Mann now dragged the footy left on the final tackle as well.

The Panthers had a seven tackle set, and were just getting within field goal range when Leota lost the ball while trying to play it, thanks to some big pressure from Saifiti and Randall, who had enjoyed a truly heroic night in defence. At the end of the next Newcastle set, Mann found himself in the wrong position for a one-pointer and had to opt for a floating bomb, which paved the way for an amazing run from Brian To’o, who almost broke through the line thirty seconds later. Once again, Burton kicked and missed, veering to the right of the posts this time, as the Knights got the ball back with half a minute on the clock. They didn’t get to the end of their set, but did seem to be on the brink of a try on the stroke of full time, when Lee found open space on the left edge, and made a mad dash up the sideline, skipping over a low tackle from To’o only to be dragged into touch by a mammoth effort from Koroisai, bringing the match into golden point.

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Fisher-Harris took the first tackle, and Mansour dragged three Newcastle enforcers three metres, before Fish took another run, and did well to hold onto the footy in the face of yet another escalation from the Knights defence. Burton’s third field goal was the craziest yet, bouncing off the right post and back into the Panthers’ attack, where Koroisau collected it but was pinged for being offside. Newcastle were at the forty by their third tackle, and Hoy attempted a field goal from thirty metres out, but the Steeden swerved away to the right, albeit touched Luaia on its way up from Hoy’s boot, meaning that the Knights got a dropout and another chance to attack the line. Hoy had to run the football on the last tackle, and so shifted it across to Best, who had Lee unmarked on his outside. Edrick was only a foot away from the chalk, but somehow Best botched the pass, and destroyed what would have been a certain try, gifting the Panthers one more set before the first five minutes of golden point was over.

With five seconds left on the clock, Burton kicked from halfway out, but his kick went under the crossbar. There wouldn’t be another field goal attempt for a few sets, since Newcastle weren’t in position next time they had ball in hand, and Burton opted for a bomb a set later, which Hoy caught clean right on the line. Hoy followed suit, and Aekins also caught the high ball on the full, as the first draw of the 2020 NRL season loomed on the horizon. Yet another field goal attempt from Burton veered away to the right of the posts, giving the Knights a seven tackle set, and their last real shot at a field goal, but with Hoy unable to get to a kick on the last, they were all wrapped up as the last thirty seconds arrived. Penrith had the last word, but Crichton lost the footy with ten seconds on the clock, before Best offloaded to Lee, who was tackled to the ground for a 14-14 draw. In essence, though, this was a win for Newcastle, who put in an incredible effort without Pearce, Ponga, Brailey and Watson on the park – easily the best game of 2020 so far, and a big motivator when they play Canberra next week.

About Billy Stevenson (488 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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