ROUND 11: Newcastle Knights v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (McDonald Jones Stadium, 26/7/20)

The Knights were looking to go back-to-back for the first time since Rounds 1 and 2 when they hosted Canterbury in the Hunter on Saturday afternoon, but they found the Dogs pretty spirited in both attack and defence, and struggled to put down points for the first hour of the game. With the rain pouring down from the outset, Lachlan Fitzgibbon lost the ball in the first thirty seconds, although Kalyn Ponga picked up Lachlan Lewis’ first kick without too much trouble, and then came up with a great bounce at the end of Newcastle’s first completed set, although it came to nothing when Fitzgibbon was called offside. Despite Hymel Hunt breaking through the line on the right edge, Canterbury had the upper hand already, as Dallin Watene Zelezniak did well for his first take under a Ponga bomb, and Jeremy Marshall-King executed the best early kick of the game, driving the ball deep between Ponga and Enari Tuala into the in goal area. Bradman Best responded with the best kick return of the game, making his way back to the Bulldogs’ thirty, but Nick Meaney was faster, dragging him over the sideline and forcing him to flick the footy back inside to a sea of Canterbury jerseys.

The rain got even heavier as the Dogs received their first restart, and they got rolling into one of their best sets so far, including two hard runs from Luke Thompson and a great offload along the ground from Kerrod Holland to Lewis, before Tautau Moga knocked on an over-wide kick from Lewis to give Canterbury another shot. The best run was the first run, from Meaney, who drew in four defenders with a burly effort on the right edge, since the Bulldogs wasted the next three tackles around the posts, before Tuala took advantage of the slippery surface to slide into a misplaced pass from Lewis. The Dogs made good a set later, however, when Lewis kicked on play four, sending the ball across to the right wing, where DWZ got outside the defence and flicked it back inside to Holland before tumbling over the sideline. From there, Holland executed a quick play-the-ball for Lewis, who popped a short ball inside for Aiden Tolman to put down his first try since the last match of 2017, and his first linebreak since 2015. Canterbury have lost all seven games in 2020 when they’ve conceded the first four points, so this was a good sign, especially when Meaney added the extras from right in front, even if DWZ did give away their first penalty with a high hit on Best a set later.

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One penalty wasn’t so bad, but when Lewis followed up with a second effort, the Knights had their best accumulation of field position so far. You could almost hear the home crowd groan, then, when Best put the footy down on play one, allowing DWZ to swoop in, scoop it up, and send it across to Tolman right on the line. Now it was Newcastle’s turn to struggle for attacking options, culminating with a Pearce grubber that found JMK on the chest right in front of the posts. Kieran Foran broke through the line a tackle later, and couldn’t find any support on his outside, but the Bulldogs continued their momentum, setting him up to grubber on the fourth in goal, where Hymel Hunt and Jake Averillo converged on the football. In any other conditions, Averillo would likely have scored here, but instead he knocked on, and a twelve-point lead went begging. Sione Mata’utia put a huge hit on Meaney under the next high ball to help consolidate this shift in momentum, and Herman Ese’ese came on for Jacob Saifiti a minute later, adding more fuel to Newcastle’s forward pack, before the Dogs got a scare at the back of Pearce’s next bomb, which bounced on the left wing.

Luckily, DWZ successfully tapped the footy back to one of his team mates, before barging into Andrew McCullough, who was carried off the park with what appeared to be a severe hamstring injury. Six minutes later, Conor Watson, who had subbed on for McCullough, was also taken off, after slipping without contact, for what turned out to be an Achilles tendon issue. This had been a horror period for the Knights, so they needed to capitalise when they got the first restart in a while on the brink of half time. Everything went well for a bit, as Kurt Mann forced the first dropout of the game out of dummy half, Lewis almost missed the kick and only sent the footy thirteen metres, and the Knights got six again three tackles later. Yet before the restart siren could even sound, Mann threw the ball behind Ese’ese, and all their field position came to nothing, while Ponga made an even more egregious error back from the break, knocking the footy forward at the end of the second Canterbury set. Newcastle could probably have gone for a Captain’s Challenge here, since in real time it looked like their star fullback knocked back, but instead Raymond Faitala-Mariner crashed over for exactly the muscular effort that the Dogs needed to stamp their signature on the second half as well.

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Receiving the footy seven metres out from the line, Faitala-Mariner twisted away from Pearce, and barged through Mitch Barnett, coming to ground with the football in both hands, using Barnett’s thigh for balance as Moga stormed in for a follow-up effort, but was unable to get a hand beneath the Steeden. In a masterclass of ball handling under such torrential conditions – intensified even further since the break – the big second-rower finally slammed the footy down, bringing the Bulldogs to a 12-0 lead once Meaney added the extras from right in front. The Knights got a chance after a Meaney error, but skyrocketed to triple Canterbury on the error tally – nine to three – with a mistake from Ese’ese a moment later. Soon after, Tolman dropped away from a combined tackle on Best, allowing Katoa to strip the ball and get the Bulldogs the field position they needed for Averillo to put down his try. The set-up came from Foran, who kicked past Ponga in goal, where Ese’ese reached out a hand to knock the footy over the dead ball line, or get it down himself, but couldn’t do either, instead leaving it open for the young no. 4 to slip and slide through what seemed like several centimetres of water to score, before maintaining his perfect record with the boot a minute later.

Ponga responded with his most bravura take of the night, sliding along the ground to collect the footy on the full, before the Knights got a much-needed penalty from Lewis for lying in the ruck. Mann’s kick bounced right at the dead ball line, as Averillo, JMK and Meaney tried to usher it into touch, only for Moga to storm up behind them and come dangerously close to a try after just losing contact with the ball after bouncing it down. With Hymel Hunt putting down a pass from Pearce  a play later, the Knights’ mistakes entered double figures, and while they managed to drag Montoya over the sideline late in the next Canterbury tackle count, Moga was called offside just before, drawing out frustrated boos from the home crowd. Newcastle managed to survive this next set, although they were forced to work the ball out deep from their own end, while Barnett took out their frustration with a big hit on Montoya a minute later, albeit without forcing a knock-on. Aidan Guerra did better on Josh Jackson, rattling the footy free for the first stage in the Newcastle comeback – a right sweep through Pearce and Ponga to Moga, who flicked the ball back for Hunt to curve around behind the posts.

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The Knights were now on the board, and glimpsed their last big surge of energy with a Jacob Saifiti linebreak, followed by a charge at the line from Pasami Saulo, who slammed into three defenders backwards, but got the ball down a centimeter short. He was actually lucky he didn’t get there, since this would have counted as a double movement, costing the Knights the next few tackles to play with, although it all came to nothing when Pearce kicked on the very next play, sending the Steeden ricocheting off the defence and straight back into the arms of Katoa. Cometh the hour, cometh the Mann, who drove the last great Newcastle burst during this game, starting with big pressure on Brandon Wakeham to shank the next kick over the sideline on the full. With Brailey, McCullough and Watson all off the park, it was pretty sobering to see Mann go down after this tackle on Wakeham, but that just made the comeback all the more resounding when he returned to his feet, and then set up Mata’utia to score at the end of the same set, popping a short ball across for his big forward to dance over a low tackle from JMK, and reach out a hand to plant the footy on the line as Meaney crashed down on top of him. Ponga may only be kicking at 68% this season, but he got the goods here, narrowing the margin to a converted try with ten on the clock.

In some ways, the Knights really consolidated over the last part of the game, executing one of their fastest sets on the restart, which Pearce capped off with a soaring bomb that Meaney took bravely despite a barnstorming kick chase from Mann. Yet Newcastle couldn’t quite get to the critical third try, applying more and more pressure on the Dogs, who hadn’t played the ball in Newcastle’s twenty since the sixtieth minute, but never quite solidifying their own attack. First Pearce put down the ball during a rapid acceleration of field position, and then Ponga kicked too long just when his men seemed set to score, forcing Fitzgibbon to chase it down for the most desperate run of the night, but only put hand to leather when he’d crossed the dead ball line. You could see the Bulldogs’ resilience in 2020 burnished during these final minutes, since they effectively just withstood everything that the Knights could throw at them – and the combined genius of Pearce, Ponga and Mann – staying strong to come away with only their second win over the season following their 22-2 victory over the Dragons in Round 4. To achieve that against a top eight team was exactly the boost they needed mid-season, so they’ll be approaching next week’s game against Parra with renewed belief, while the Knights will be raring to come back big against Melbourne on Sunday afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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