ROUND 14: Newcastle Knights v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (McDonald Jones Stadium, 16/8/20)

Newcastle were outside the top eight when they hosted Manly on Sunday afternoon, while the Sea Eagles had two conspicuous absences from their pack – Marty Taupau, who was still resting a concussion after a big hit from Jack Hetherington last week, and Jorge Taufua, who had been replaced by Tevita Funa for undisclosed reasons, for what would have been his 160th game in the Manly jersey. It turned out to be the third really close game of Round 14, with only two points separating the two teams, in a great sequel to Adam Reynolds’ field goal win over the Cowboys the night before, and a great prequel to Luke Brooks’ field goal win over the Bulldogs later the same day.

There was a strong north-westerly blowing through Hunter Stadium, inducing Hymel Hunt to let an early DCE bomb bounce, and the Sea Eagles responded with two superb sideline plays – Brad Parker leaping high over the chalk to tap the ball back in, and then Cade Cust getting a kick away before being bumped into touch. This would already have been a terrific effort from the Manly five-eighth, but he now continued to pivot back in field, slicing between Hunt and Gehamat Shibasaki to get the ball down with his right hand.

Reuben Garrick had to boot the footy pretty hard to defy the wind, but the trajectory stayed true, putting Manly more than a point per minute when they charged into the restart, building on a pair of early offloads from Cust and Danny Levi as the Knights amped up their defence to force DCE to kick within the thirty. Hunt was safer beneath the high ball this time, although the wind was still pretty dangerous, while Mitchell Pearce chose to go low with his next kick to bunch Manly in their left corner.

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The Sea Eagles didn’t get to their next kick, since Cust’s right knee buckled beneath a combined tackle from Pearce, David Klemmer and Aidan Guerra, leaving him unable to extend his leg enough to play the ball properly. Newcastle got the first scrum feed of the afternoon, Kalyn Ponga got them rolling with a bullocking run into DCE, Klemmer accelerated further up the middle, and Kurt Mann commenced a rapid right sweep – a terrific burst of energy after the first real pause in play, until Ponga put the footy down cold on tackle three.

You had to wonder whether he was still reeling from DCE’s high hit, which had gone unnoticed by the referees, and was even more galling for the home team when Daly crossed over a tackle later. Jake Trbojevic was the key ingredient here, opening up the line with a brilliant pass for Taniela Paseka, who popped the footy across to his halfback to give the Sea Eagles two tries in the first ten minutes – and, again, more than a point per minute when Garrick added his second conversion. This had been a pretty sobering start for the Knights, so Pearce and Ponga needed to produce something special over the next couple of sets, ideally in combination.

Instead, Levi got two successive offloads away on the restart, and DCE finished with another floating bomb that brought Ponga right back to the five with a huge kick chase from Brendan Elliott. Nevertheless, Elliott infringed the ruck on the same play, and the Knights got another restart on their next set of six, commencing a gradual and piecemeal acceleration that would eventually produce their first try.

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Lachlan Fitzgibbon now started to step up as a key playmaker in this game, putting good pressure on Cust to force his kick dead, and then making a big shot at the line three tackles into the next set, clearing space for Mitch Barnett to soar a wide ball out to Shibasaki that disheveled the Manly defence even further. Pearce shifted direction again on the last, and while his final cut-out pass drifted too far behind Starford To’a, this was still the most restless and exciting set from Newcastle so far – a reminder of how fluidly they could deconstruct the defence if they got into full gear.

They lost a bit more momentum early in the next Sea Eagles set, when DCE wasted his Captain’s Challenge to contest a Kurt Mann strip, and then conceded the first dropout of the game at the end of this same set, when Daniel Saifiti brought a Cust kick back in field after it ricocheted off the left post, but Enari Tuala couldn’t prevent Elliott, Sironen and Trbojevic driving him five metres back on the second tackle.

This was the toughest attack so far from Manly, and the big men continued that heft with good metres up for the middle, before DCE tried to get a right sweep going through Elliott – the tipping-point, it seemed for Pearce, who started a dominant period with a big midfield tackle on Cust to dent Manly’s momentum. Joel Thompson knocked on a DCE ball a play later, and Newcastle settled back into the restless questioning of the set that had ended with Pearce’s awkward wide ball to To’a, as Ponga slammed into the ruck like the biggest frontrower on the field, bracing and rock into Paseka and Sironen.

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Fitzgibbon continued to bring the pressure, showcasing his best timing of the season with a tackle on Elliott at the very moment he came to earth after collecting the next Newcastle high ball. The big second-rower was clearly pumped by this play, barking out orders to his men as they prepared for their next set of six, but attention quickly shifted to the replacement fullback, who was taken off the park for what would turn out to be an ACL injury – another backline disaster for the Sea Eagles, who are now close to rivalling the Roosters for the sheer amount of talent on the bench.

Jack Gosiewski trotted on in his place, and Sean Keppie subbed on for Paseka a moment later, but the fresh blood in the the forward pack, and the subsequent reshuffle of the backline, couldn’t prevent the Knights capitalizing on this break in play – especially when Trbojevic stuck a hand in the ruck two tackles into the next Newcastle set. Klemmer responded with a big opening run, Guerra twisted through a trio of defenders just outside the ten, Shibasaki brought the play back towards the posts, Mann sent Barnett into a spin beneath the posts.

This was all good footy, but the critical play came from Barnett, who offloaded back to his hooker, paving the way for a left sweep that saw To’a get his try after all. Ponga now made one of his best assists of the year, catch-and-passing Pearce’s low ball balletically as the wind tried to swerve it away from him. Manly might have scored the first two tries, but Newcastle had scored the best try (so far), while the fact that Ponga had helped Pearce make good on his botched linkup with To’a helped the home team consolidate and self-correct across the board.

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Despite a ruck infringement from Mann and a knee issue that forced Jacob Saifti to sub on for brother Daniel, the next Newcastle try also came off a Trbojevic penalty. This four-pointer was as tough and simple as the last had been eloquent and elastic, as Mann dummied to the left and then just stormed through Garrick, Sean Keppie and Haumole Olakau’atu from five metres out, before Ponga converted from right in front to wrap up the game 12-12 ten minutes from the siren.

The next big shift came when Fitzgibbon was penalised for dragging Garrick back in goal after the tackle had been completed in field, and the Sea Eagles looked good on the next set, only for Lachlan Croker to shoot out a bad ball from dummy half, spraying it so far forward that Cust could only get fingertips to it. Blake Green now delivered with the boot, opting for a crossfield bomb that Tuala chased down on the sideline, getting a toe to the chalk but returning to the grass by the time he popped the footy over to Fitzgibbon, who took possession after it tracked a perfect parabola in the sky, and then offloaded back to To’a, who in turn traced an elegant arc around Garrick, Funa and DCE to smash it down in the corner.

This was the most geometric and gymnastic try of the game – probably the whole round – putting the Knights ahead for the first time, and eclipsing the first of two missed conversions from Ponga, who found the heavy wind too much from the sideline. After the opening twenty minutes, Newcastle couldn’t have asked for a better way to head to the sheds, and they returned pumped, putting down their next try five minutes in, off a crossfield chip from Pearce that Gosiewski got a hand to in the air.

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Shibasaki stripped it on the way down, and the ball ricocheted backwards off Guerra’s boots, remaining live for the ex-Roosters to scoop it up and offload for Hunt to get down with Cust on his back. There was pretty extensive Bunker scrutiny to check whether Shibasaki had knocked on into Gosiewski, especially since the play took place in the darkest corner of the stadium, but the try was eventually cleared, putting Newcastle eight ahead when Ponga missed his second straight conversion.

Manly needed a big individual effort to get back in the context, and they got it when Croker spearheaded a two-man tackle with Sironen that rattled the footy from Jacob Saifiti’s grasp, setting up the Sea Eagles for a scrum feed that DCE almost lost. Instead, he got a penalty from Green for a hand in the ruck, and then made up for his messiness with his best grubber of the game, after Paseka laid a good platform with some of the best post-contact metres of any forward so far. Running right into the line, he sent it off the right boot past Barnett for Gosiewski to chase down and slam to ground, before huddling the Manly players around him to get them pumped for their next big play.

It almost came a tackle after Garrick added the extras, when Keppie broke through the line, but the Sea Eagless still effectively scored on the restart, since they spent the next six minutes racking up the biggest surge of field position for any team all game. With a restart they were inside the Knights’ twenty with three tackles ago, and then got a fresh set of six five metres out from the line with another six again call on the very last play.

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For a moment Gosiewski looked set to score off DCE again – a pass this time – while Paseka also reprised the previous tryscoring play with another big run. Cust grubbered on the last, To’a had to take it dead and the Sea Eagles now had the first dropout of the second half. Full credit has to go to Keppie, whose enormous run and linebreak se the speed for all this subsequent possession, and it felt right that he took the first tackle now, laying the groundwork for more post-contact metres from Paseka.

Taniela’s brilliance crystallised on the fourth play, when he barged into the line and offloaded on the ground to Croker, who held onto the footy with concrete hands as Ponga came in for a low tackle, squeezing the Steeden into his chest for what was effectively a simultaneous putdown with the Newcastle fullback. The kicks really started to make a difference now, as Garrick’s last two conversions, and Ponga’s two missed conversions, put Manly four ahead instead of merely levelling the score. Yet the Knights now commenced their toughest late win of the year, moving through three botched tries before Tuala finally crossed over for the last four-pointer of the match.

The first near-try came fifteen minutes out – a heart-in-mouth moment for Manly as Pearce shifted the ball across to Ponga, who would have notched up another try assist if his ball to Hunt hadn’t been called forward. Three minutes later, Green broke through the line and offloaded for a right sweep that ended with Hunt lunging at the corner, where his potentially try-assisting offload to Shibasaki was knocked on by Garrick.

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The third near miss was the most agonizing, and came after a pair of big errors – DCE called offside within the ten, and Parker put on report following a dangerous tackle on Jacob Saifiti, as Joel Thompson took a breather with blood pouring from his mouth, in a pretty apt summary of the intensity of these final minutes. Mann took the first hit-up, Klemmer followed with a good charge at the line, and Barnett followed suit on the third, before Newcastle lost a bit of momentum when Mann was held up, but brought it all together again at the end of a relatively simple left side play.

Pearce popped the footy out to To’a, for what had the potential to be a terrific full-circle moment following his botched pass in the first half, only for To’a to drop it on the way down. This was a huge advantage for Manly – both tactically, since they now had a twenty metre restart and seven tackles, and psychologically, since the Knights’ afternoon now seemed destined to be bookended by a pair of frustrated Pearce-To’a linkups. Yet that just made it all the more cathartic and exhilarating when Tuala scored the next and last try, off an overlong DCE kick that got Newcastle seven tackles of their own to play with.

For a moment, Tuala seemed like he might be the main casualty of this set, as a wide Green ball careened behind him, but he collected an offload from To’a to send Pearce into one of his best runs of the night, and then collected a cut-out from Ponga at the ten to slam down the fifth Newcastle try. In his multiple roles on the set, Tuala had become a kind of one-man summary of the Knights’ continuous self-correct over the course of the match, as Ponga now came good with the boot to send the match-winning conversion through the posts.

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The Sea Eagles lost their last chance when Garrick sent the restart kick out on the full, and only a dangerous tackle from Klemmer and a final error from Trbojevic marked the last few minutes of the match. It’s been a close round then, with the Knights and Dragons both racking up two point wins, and the Bunnies and Tigers getting field goal wins over the Cowboys and Bulldogs respectively. There’s going to be some emotional footy played, then, when Souths host Manly and Newcastle host North Queensland in Round 15, for what promises to be a thrilling sequel to a fantastic football weekend.

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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