Sunday night’s rainy match at Campbelltown was technically a Canberra home game, but the Knights picked up right where they left off at the end of last week’s incredible draw against the Panthers, flexing their muscles immediately with Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga back on the park. Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad made the first handling error of the afternoon under Pearce’s first bomb, losing the footy and giving Newcastle the first scrum feed only ninety minutes in. As quickly as CNK had made the error, the Knights scored, with Bradman Best busting over on the first play, moving through a low tackle from Curtis Scott, and an upper body tackle from the Canberra fullback, while keeping the footy tucked securely under his arm, and grounding it under the momentum of this combined defensive effort. Things got worse when CNK lost the high ball again at the end of the restart, under pressure from Kurt Mann, but luckily for Canberra the Bunker deemed it was knocked back, as the Raiders ground in for their second set.
While Pearce’s two bombs had been pitch-perfect, Jack Wighton’s first big kick sailed over the sideline, getting another bout of field position for the Knights, who would probably have scored then and there if David Klemmer hadn’t conceded the first penalty of the match for an obstruction play. The Raiders now had their first attacking opportunity, but once again they were unable to manage their last tackle option, as Sione Mata’utia cleaned up Wighton before he could pass, kick or run the ball, with Pearce and Herman Ese’ese storming in for assistance when the big Canberra five-eighth showed signs of breaking through Mata’utia’s original effort. Finally, Nick Cotric collected the high ball cleanly at the end of the next Newcastle set – a critical moment for the green machine as they gradually recalibrated their rhythm following the rapid acceleration of Newcastle possession in the opening minutes. George Williams went long on the next kick, Ponga scooped it up, and for a moment the game settled back into a more regular set-for-set shape.Embed from Getty Images
CNK now followed Cotric by making his first clean take beneath a Pearce bomb, and the Raiders responded with their fastest set of the night – a deft offload from Cotric to Josh Hodgson, a wide ball from Williams to Wighton, and then a flick pass from Wighton that sent Jarrod Croker all the way to the corner. He found Cotric unmarked on the edge, and the Raiders were all but guaranteed their first try, only to mistime the pass and send it forward over the sideline, thanks to a deft ankle tap from Ponga. Wighton tried to steady the ship by booting through the biggest bomb of the game a set later, but while the ball floated in the air for about five seconds, Ponga was still up to the task, catching it like it was a regulation kick. Seeing their fullback so confident under the Steeden seemed to strengthen the Knights further, and so they trapped Canberra in their own end on the next set, forcing Hodgson to send through an awkward kick on the fourth tackle, as Wighton and Croker tried to compensate with huge pressure on Hymel Hunt just after he collected the high ball.
Canberra needed Newcastle to make an error – and they got one from Daniel Saifiti, who set them up with the scrum feed in the middle of the park. Bailey Simonsson took the first hit-up and gained the first set restart of the afternoon, and Williams made a neat offload to Hodgson midway through the tackle count, but the English halfback’s short chip last found Edrick Lee, who was never going to let anyone jump above him to collect it. Conversely, the Knights capitalised immediately on the next Canberra error – a knock-on from Wighton, who was caught out by the slippery Steeden at the end of a wide ball from Hodgson. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Ponga now made a superstar play, collecting the footy at the forty, dancing around Elliott Whitehead, breaking through a tackle from CNK, and making his way in goal – a pretty dispiriting outcome, with only a quarter of the match gone, for a Canberra outfit that hadn’t conceded more than a try per game in the first three rounds of 2020.Embed from Getty Images
To their credit, though, the Raiders did make the most of their next big opportunity – a successful Captain’s Challenge at the thirtieth minute, when the Bunker raitified their argument that CNK hadn’t lost the footy right on the line, but had gathered it clean before Aiden Guerra knocked it forward out of his hands. Canberra got an extra burst of field position when Klemmer broke the scrum early, and then a couple of decent plays, as Wighton made a big run up through the middle of the field, and Joseph Tapine drew in three defenders on the right edge. None of these sequences screamed try, and nor did Williams’ kick, under pressure to the left corner, but Wighton now responded to Ponga with a sublime one-man effort of his own. Leaping above Enari Tuala, he secured the Steeden on the full, and then crashed down through Ponga, retaining control of the football as he planted it to ground. Croker added the extras from beside the posts, and all of a sudden it was only a four-point game.
The contest between Wighton and Tuala continued ninety sconds out from the siren, when Pearce bombed to Cotric, Lee tapped back, and Best responded with one of the best plays of his career to date – a short run and then a perfectly weighted kick off the left boot. Tuala stormed in from the other side of the park, and collided in goal with Wighton, who tackled him just as he was about to ground the footy in front of the dead ball line. With a clear call of penalty try, the Knights had jumped from a four point lead to a ten point lead with a minute on the clock, so they weren’t too phased when the Raiders got a repeat set to start the second half, and Tapine came close to crashing over. Despite this brief surge, Hunt caught Wighton’s kick in goal, and Hodgson made a dangerous tackle, as Newcastle started to glimpse their early acceleration of the first half, continuing through a set restart, before Guerra and Glasby twisted and spun on either side of the posts, and Curtis Scott knocked on a Kurt Mann pass to Best.Embed from Getty Images
Best was unmarked on the wing, so this was the right move from Scott, but it didn’t make much difference in the end, since Lee scored as quickly on the restart as Best had out of the scrum, storming up to the left corner and reaching out his left hand to get the football down. Canberra were clearly spooked by the penalty try on the cusp of half time, since Cotric came in off his line too soon, in an effort to clean up Ponga’s try assist, making it more difficult for Scott to contend with Lee on the wing. For a moment, the game settled back into a set-for-set rhythm, but once again Ponga was the difference, waiting patiently until a Williams kick was safe to collect – a metre in goal – and then muscling his way through a combined tackle from Josh Papalii and Emre Guler, tempting Guler into holding him down in the process. Daniel Saifiti made great post-contact metres up the middle of the park, holding onto the Steeden as Hodgson tried to strip it, before a pair of wide balls from Ponga and Pearce set up Best to make up for last week’s botched pass in golden point by sending Lee over in the corner.
This was turning from a great Newcastle game to a sublime Newcastle game – a pivotal match in the club’s gradual return to the top tier of rugby league over the last couple of years. The Raiders must have also been aware that they were on the cusp of a historic loss, since they now scored two rapid tries in quick succession, narrowing the scoreline to ten points in a couple of minutes, by taking immediate advantage of a pair of Newcastle errors. The first was a lost ball from Mata’utia after Canberra went short on the kickoff, giving the Raiders an unexpected set that ended with a superb kick from Williams that found Tapine square on the chest out on the right wing. This was a great two-part play from the Canberra second-rower, who won the contest with Lee in the air, and then twisted around, keeping hold of the football, to burrow down beneath the ex-Raider and Best, who had slammed in for an attempted late trysaver.Embed from Getty Images
Moments later, Mann fumbled the footy at the end of a Williams bomb, and the Raiders scored once again – this time due to an exquisite one-man effort from Papalii, who fed the footy to Williams in the middle of the park, and received the offload from his halfback a second later. From there, he headed right, fending off Guerra, bouncing off Mann, and effectively standing in a tackle from Andrew McCullough three metres out from the line, wading and trudging through the ex-Bronco’s grip until he had room to slam down the Steeden for another four points. Croker was always going to add the extras from this angle, so we were back to a ten-point game, as both teams resorted to a pair of interchanges – Guerra and Klemmer for the Knights, and Rapana and Horsburgh for the Raiders – to face the last fifteen minutes of football.
Two very different aerial balls now ensued – first a bobble and regather from Lee, and then a falcon from Whitehead that bounced off Rapana’s head and into Pearce’s arms, leading to a knock-on call for Canberra. Rapana took out his frustration a set later with a shove on Ponga, who remained on the field after a quick examination, but was taken off for an HIA a few minutes later, albeit not without his most courageous defensive gesture so far – wrapping himself around the footy, and putting his entire body on the line, as the Raiders’ big men charged down field at the tail end of a Williams kick. Between those two moments, Brodie Jones took the Steeden right to the line, lifting his arm up to slam it down, only for six Canberra players to crowd in for the best scrambling defence all night, preventing what would have been a match-winning try for the Knights.Embed from Getty Images
Another try went begging for Newcastle a minute later, when Mann received the footy in the middle of the field, cast his eyes to his outside edge, and then popped a short ball inside to Pearce, who broke through the line and shifted the Steeden to Guerra. The ex-Rooster had space and speed enough to score, but instead lost the footy as Scott approached from behind, leaving it open for Papalii to scoop it up and send it across to Simonsson. Yet the Raiders didn’t capitalise here, and got their last chance a minute later, when Tuala knocked a Williams kick into touch, as Newcastle used up their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest the call and dropout. Tex Hoy went long with the boot, Dunamis Lui took the first hit-up, and then had to dive to collect a Hodgson pass on the third – a momentum-killer that deflated the set, which ended with Wighton being cleaned up on the Raiders’ left edge after running the ball on the last.
The green machine got the scrum feed a set later, but by now it was too late – and the Knights had the last word when Klemmer made a shuddering hit on Williams, sending his last pass awry, and preventing Siliva Havilii from properly cleaning it up. Seizing his opportunity, Best kicked the footy forward, and caught a high bounce in one hand right on the try line, lunging over beneath the posts for his second double in two weeks. With Hoy adding the extras in Ponga’s absence, the Knights had recovered their terrific point margin, but before he kicked a full-out fracas exploded on the side of the field, with Tapine appearing to throw a couple of punches at Klemmer. The emotion was understandable, since Canberra were the casualties of one of the most critical and groundbreaking performances from the Knights since Ponga and Pearce joined the crew – a milestone for how far they have come over the last couple of years, and a real galvaniser for when they rock up to play the Storm on the Central Coast next Saturday.