ROUND 9: Newcastle Knights v. Parramatta Eels (McDonald Jones Stadium, 12/7/20)
Newcastle and Parramatta enjoyed a classic arm wrestle for the first game back at McDonald Jones since Round 1, with only three tries and a penalty goal across the entire eighty minutes of football. Kalyn Ponga took the kickoff, and Shaun Lane collected it with a boot on the sideline to give the Knights early field position, although the Eels used this sequence as a chance to prove why they’re renowned for the best defence in 2020, withstanding every tackle before Clint Gutherson cleaned up Ponga’s kick on the last and made his way back into the field of play. Newcastle continued to build space on their next touch of the ball, and looked primed to accelerate when Ponga sent a harbour bridge ball out to Hymel Hunt, but the pass was called forward, ushering in a period when both teams went set for set, as Ponga caught a pair of Parramatta kicks on the full. Finally, a strong run from Kurt Mann set up Mitchell Pearce to mirror Ponga with a wide ball on the other wing to Enari Tuala, who stormed up the side and booted the footy back in field, where Waqa Blake was forced to pop it into touch with Bradman Best on his back, giving Newcastle the first dropout of the afternoon.
Yet Ponga now came up with his worst kick on the right edge, sending the ball into the legs of Shaun Lane and Dylan Brown, as Michael Jennings dove on it, but lost it to Tautau Moga, who muscled his way through Brown and Junior Paulo for his first game back since Round 22 last year. He lost possession as Gutho came in to complete the tackle, but Jenko’s error still gave the Knights a ten-metre scrum, and Pearce responded with a sublime pass to the left edge – the only catch was that there was nobody there to catch it. If Tuala had been in place this would have been a certain try, but as it was the Eels got a let-off, which Nathan Brown compounded with the best post-contact metres so far on play three. The Knights had another agonising near-miss on their next set, when Tuala did indeed cross over the line, off a short ball from Lachlan Fitzgibbon, but not without Best tapping the ball forward in the interim. Once again, Parra followed the error with a strong set, as Lane made the best offload so far to Gutherson, who executed an even clutchier offload for Reed Mahoney to get within five metres of the line. Ponga responded by keeping his legs in the air for as long as possible under the high ball, tempting an aerial tackle from Dylan Brown.Embed from Getty Images
History seemed to be repeating itself for the Knights, whose momentum was quashed again by a forward pass on the right edge – this time from Moga to Hunt – although the call was more questionable here. Parra made the most of it, setting up their first dropout on the next set, off a deft grubber from Mahoney and an even better kick chase from Jai Field. Paulo looked for an offload on the first carry, Nathan Brown made more metres on the second, the Eels got a restart on the third, and Ryan Matterson crashed over on the next play, thanks to a poor defensive read from Fitzgibbon, who failed to clean up Paulo before he popped an offload across to Mahoney for the try assist. Parra had scored the first time they applied real pressure on the Newcastle line, although the boos from the crowd seemed to spook Gutherson, who shanked the conversion from right in front, swerving the Steeden away to the right of the posts. The Eels got another restart two tackles into the restart, but lost a bit of momentum, when Nathan Brown reeled and delayed the play-the-ball, before Dylan Brown sent a bouncing ball to the left edge, where Jenko didn’t have many options.
Newcastle didn’t do much better with their next set, when Andrew McCullough chipped over Maika Sivo on the last, but sent the footy out on the full, and this messy period culminated with Field putting down the Steeden on the next set, albeit after getting away from Fitzgibbon and Mann to start off with. Dylan Brown resumed focus with a terrific linebreak on the first tackle of the next set, burning his way to the Parramatta forty, but not finding Sivo or Jenko, instead popping the ball back to Gutho, who was cleaned up pretty quickly. Newcastle now got had their next big accumulation of field position as Sivo knocked on beneath a Pearce bomb, Blake was called offside, and Mann made the best wide pass of the night out to Hunt. Hunt lost the ball, but the errors were growing contagious, as Paulo coughed up the footy two tackles later while searching for an offload, and Pearce booted the ball too hard on the next set, inflecting it just a little too heavily for Fitzgibbon to get down in front of the dead ball line. The Eels now got another restart, and then more field position when Best was pinged for obstructing Blake at the back end of a perfect crossfield kick from Dylan Brown, and Reagan Campbell-Gillard would probably have scored off Mahoney’s next effort with the boot if it hadn’t ricocheted off the right post at an unexpected angle.Embed from Getty Images
This marked the start of a fairly dominant period for the Knights, who got their first restart a moment later, and then another one a tackle after that, setting up Ponga for his best grubber of the night – a low dangerous effort from the twenty that Sivo was forced to pop into touch. Gutho went sixty metres with the dropout, but Herman Ese’ese, Tautau Moga and Pasami Saulo got the Knights back to the ten metre line by the final tackle, where the Eels cleaned up the kick, only for Blake to be put on report for a nasty late effort on Ponga, who copped the ex-Panther’s shoulder right in the head. Fitzgibbon dragged Matterson and David Gower towards the line on play two, laying the platform for McCullough to slam through Field at marker, and then twist through Gutho and Gower to get to ground, rotating further to finally make contact with the tip of the Steeden. Like Gutherson, Ponga missed the conversion, leaving the park immediately after for an HIA following the hit from Blake, who was lucky not to be binned. He was back for the second half, however, as both teams resumed the arm wrestle, going set for set until an accumulation of errors from both sides around the fifty minute mark that continued more or less equally for the next ten minutes.
In the process, Dylan Brown and Saulo were taken off for HIAs after a head clash, but they returned when the second quarter arrived, as the Eels accelerated into their final point scoring sequence, which started with a dropped ball from Ponga and a leg pull from Klemmer on Marata Niukore. At first, Klem’s effort was a boon for the Knights, since Mahoney crossed over a second later, but had the try called back because the footy hadn’t been brought into play correctly. Gutho took the penalty kick in front of the posts, and the Knights had saved four points, but this still marked the start of Parra’s final surge, which saw them have another try denied before finally driving the nail in the Newcastle coffin. Ponga aimed for a dropout next time he kicked, but the first bounce was bad, allowing Fergo and Gutho to slow down to a casual jog as the Steeden drifted over the dead ball line. Mahoney then took the next kick out of dummy half, setting up Lane for a putdown that was initially scrutinized to check whether the wiry second-rower had been offside, only for the replay to show a brief knock-on just before he got the ball to ground, producing the second disallowed try in five minutes.Embed from Getty Images
After so much time between points, we were now treated to one of the fastest and most exciting passages of play in Round 9, starting with a no-look pass from Tex Hoy to Waqa Blake at the Newcastle end of the field. Gutho couldn’t get to a final kick, but he got a second chance when Pearce was pinged for a high hit – and made the most of it, storming up the sideline and aiming two dummies across Ponga’s chest before popping the footy out to Sivo for the match-winning try. The Knights got two big chances in the last ten minutes – a linebreak from Tuala that ended with an error from Fitzgibbon, and a near-try from Hoy, but the game ended with an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge from Newcastle and a successful Captain’s Challenge from Parra, which reflected the blue and gold dominance across the match as a whole, despite some very strong moments from the home team as well. Of course, the Eels will be looking for a bigger win margin when they take on the Sea Eagles next weekend, especially given Manly’s disastrous loss to the Dragons the same afternoon, while the Knights will be looking to flex their muscles over a Rabbitohs outfit fresh off their win over the Wests Tigers when they rock up to Bankwest on Saturday evening.
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