The Knights were coming off a shock loss to the Bulldogs and had sunk to eighth on the ladder, but had Blake Green in the halves for the first time, when they hosted the Tigers in the Hunter on Saturday evening, while Green had the odd experience of playing the Tigers for the second week in a row after the Warriors’ win at the SCG last Friday. On the other side of the Steeden, Luke Brooks was wearing the five-eighth jersey for the first time, Chris Lawrence and Benji Marshall were both celebrating their 250th games, and Asu Kepaoa was making his debut on the wing after being jettisoned by the Roosters to make room for Sonny Bill Williams over the coming weeks. The Tigers got the first big break about five minutes in, thanks to a pair of big runs from David Nofoaluma, who collected a fast pass from Joey Leilua and broke through the line on the right edge, before popping out and then recovering the footy from Benji Marshall. A pack of Newcastle defenders finally careened him into touch, but not without Kalyn Ponga knocking on, getting the Tigers a fresh set at close range. As it turned out, however, this would be one of the most promising attacking sequence for the visitors in a long time, as Luke Brooks ran the footy across the face of the ruck on the third, Adam Doueihi charged up the right side on the fourth, but Benji kicked too hard on the last, getting the Knights out of their own end with a seven tackle set.
Moses Mbye lost the footy four plays into the next Tiger set – the first of many loose carries from the away team – and the Knights now got their first decent field position with six again on their own fourth play, scoring on the very next tackle when Ponga took advantage of a great ball from Blake Green to stroll through the defence and plant down Newcastle’s easiest try in weeks. The Tigers lost more momentum when a superb offload from Russell Packer was called back – the tackle was already deemed complete – while the Knights got another restart early in the next set, albeit lost a bit of energy in turn when both Mitchell Pearce and Lachlan Fitzgibbon lost their footing on the fourth. Nevertheless, Green steadied the ship with the kick – a high ball to the left corner that Ponga leaped upon to bat back over Doueihi, where it bounced off Pearce’s knee and landed in the hands of David Klemmer, who shifted it across to Mitch Barnett in turn. Barnett may have been tackled by Josh Aloiai just before receiving the Steeden, but that didn’t stop him being the key playmaker here, as he shifted it from his left hand to his right hand, and then made a sublime no-look flick out the back, where the footy found Gehamat Shibasaki for a wide pass to put Hymel Hunt across untouched on the right wing. The next minute was all Ponga – he converted, dislodged the ball from Doueihi on play one with a bone-rattling low tackle, scooped the ball up, and then booted through the two points when Brooks was called offside a tackle later.Embed from Getty Images
This had been the fastest sequence of the game, and the Tigers were starting to look desperate, as evinced in a questionable tackle from Benji round Ponga’s shoulder beneath the next high ball from Brooks. Moments later, they lost the ball early in the tackle count – this time the error came from Kepaoa – and wisely chose not to let their emotions get the better of them, withstanding the temptation for an early Captain’s Challenge. With a scrum at the ten the Knights seemed destined to score, but missed their chance due to Green’s first mistimed play in Newcastle colours – a double pump and harbour bridge pass over Enari Tuala’s head that bounced too awkwardly for Starford To’a to score. Newcastle corrected immediately on their next left sweep, however, which came off yet another Tigers error – a wayward pass from Aloiai that was meant to find Benji on the chest, but instead ricocheted off Packer’s left shoulder. The next Knights play was clinical, starting with a pair of huge passes from Pearce and Green that set up Ponga to put To’a over the line in only his second match in the NRL, as Nofoaluma tried in vain to bump him into touch. For the first time Ponga didn’t get the extras, but the Knights were still three converted tries ahead, and while the Tigers got their first chance in a while after Fitzgibbon was pinged for a late tackle – he was lucky not to get a professional foul – Benji’s kick just didn’t sit up for Nofa in the corner.
The Tigers have done worse in wet weather than virtually every other team over the last couple of weeks – and for a moment a lost ball from Thomas Mikaele, eight minutes out from the siren, looked like it might usher in the next great torrent of Newcastle points. Instead, To’a made an error shortly after, and the Tigers put down a try that was part genius, part luck, as Benji’s kick came off Pearce’s boot on the left edge, where Joey Leilua kicked it again and then curved around to slam his right hand down on it in goal. You could see the determination on Leilua’s face as he hovered around the footy, but the Tigers only got four on the board when Moses Mbye booted through a truly horrible kick, dragging the ball in front of the posts from a really easy angle. Despite this respite, the next Mikaele mistake – a second effort ninety seconds out – was the killer, setting up Newcastle for the most frustrating four points of the match, as Jacob Saifiti barged through Doueihi and Lawrence to reach out his hand and get the ball down. The play was sent upstairs to check whether Saifiti had maintained possession, but the footage showed something unexpected – that Saifiti had put the tip of the ball down ten centimetres short, then scooped it up and repositioned it in a clear double movement. Nevertheless, the Bunker deemed momentum had taken Saifiti over the chalk, as another Ponga kick put Newcastle twenty ahead before they headed to the sheds.Embed from Getty Images
They started fast after the break, as Ponga broke through the line two minutes in, and Shawn Blore gave away an offside penalty a play later. From there, it only took Newcastle two tackles to put down their next try – the toughest and simplest of the night, as Herman Ese’ese received the footy from Pearce, smashed away from Benji, bounced off Joey Leilua, and then got away from Joey a second time on the line. A dropped ball from Kepaoa got the Knights six again at the end of the restart, and the Newcastle backline now executed their most sweeping play yet, steering the Steeden all the way back to the thirty, before Ponga ran into the left wing for what initially looked like a potential try assist, only to shrug off Benji and find nobody else preventing him from scoring a double. While Fitzgibbon had made an obstruction on Lawrence, Ponga had taken the outside gap, so he was free to boot through the conversion to bring the Knights to a thirty point lead as the fog started to drift over Hunter Stadium. Both teams now went set for set, with only a dangerous tackle from Kurt Mann and a series of interchanges breaking the flow of football. The highlight for the Tigers was probably Luciano Leilua offloading on his back to Brooks, but brother Joey lost it a play later to concede seven tackles to the Knights, who had now completed 30/32 sets, and were playing with the same airbrushed perfectionism the Panthers had brought against the Sea Eagles last week.
The Knights got their next chance when Nofoaluma intercepted and knocked on a Pearce pass to prevent T’oa scoring a near-certain try on the third wing. Phoenix Crossland now made an immediate impact off the bench, making a tough run at the line on the third play to get six again, and then popping it across to Ponga four tackles later, setting up his fullback for a terrific short ball to Shibasaki, who bumped off Kepaoa, and got through Doueihi, Luciano Leilua and Tommy Talau right on the line to slam down another Newcastle try. Backing their young gun, the Knights decided to use their Captain’s Challenge to contest whether he had tackled Benji without the ball a minute later, but didn’t have all that much to lose when the Bunker upheld the call. In any case, Crossland scored next, receiving the footy from Aidan Guerra after the ex-Rooster recovered the high ball, and then slamming over beneath the posts to put Newcastle forty ahead at 44-4 when Ponga converted. Doueihi went short with the kickoff, and now it was the Tigers’ turn to waste their Captain’s Challenge to contest whether Kepaoa had knocked the footy forward while leaping to collect it on the sideline. The score remained 44-4, despite a late burst of field position from the Tigers, who will need to do some soul-searching before they rock up to meet the Bulldogs next week, while Knights will be raring to showcase this superb form, and to continue drawing upon Green’s immediate impact, when they play Manly at home.