ROUND 15: Newcastle Knights v. North Queensland Cowboys (McDonald Jones Stadium, 23/8/20)

Newcastle kept North Queensland scoreless when they hosted them in the Hunter on Sunday afternoon – just what you’d want from a team keen to make finals football for the first time since 2013. On the other side of the Steeden, the Cowboys were coming off a seven-game losing streak, with new coach Josh Hannay still chasing competition points, and had to contend with a  Knights outfit who’ve won 5/7 home games in 2020.

The wind was so strong that Kyle Feldt had to steady the Steeden twice on the kickoff tee, before Jacob Saifiti took the first run with a huge hit that sent Jordan McLean reeling out of the tackle. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow also made good metres on the first carry, scooting up the left side where he ran into Gehamat Shibasaki, and Michael Morgan followed Mitchell Pearce with a good kick into the wind. Newcastle got the first penalty on their next set, when Josh McGuire was called offside downtown, and built field position rapidly, as Pearce to in a terrific crossfield run to almost send Kalyn Ponga across in the left corner.

Pearce then opted for a nice chip on the last, forcing Ben Hampton to collect it beneath the posts, where the Newcastle attack rolled him into touch for the first dropout of the afternoon. Once more Jacob Saifiti took the opening run, and the big men stepped into the spotlight, as David Klemmer took the second hit-up and Mitch Barnett resumed their attacking rhythm on the fourth, only for Lachlan Fitzgibbon to lose the footy forward just as he was setting up to score.

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This was a big letoff for the Cowboys, so it was a shame Morgan didn’t do much with his next kick, booting it high to the left corner, where Ponga put his body on the line to collect it amidst a sea of North Queensland jerseys. Pearce steadied the ship immediately with a 40/20, and the Knights were back on the opposition line, where they had to score now or else concede momentum back to the Cows. Pearce himself looked close to bursting over beneath the posts on the first tackle, and Saifiti made a charge in the same spot a tackle later, while Pearce continued to be restless on the third, shifting the direction of play several times.

Enari Tuala probably would have crossed over on the fourth if not for an ankle tap from Aidan Guerra, and the Cows were left of the hook once again when Shibasaki tapped a shallow Pearce kick back to the North Queensland defence. The visitors got the first restart a moment later, and Newcastle followed suit two sets after. Still, little by little, the Cowboys were starting to recoup some of their lost field position, gaining momentum with every minute they kept this top eight team scoreless.

They had one of their best defensive moments when Scott Drinkwater prevented Barnett crossing over off a short ball from Blake Green, and then got six more a few plays later, accelerating into one of their fastest sets so far as the halves made big metres up the middle, setting up Morgan to kick to the last sunny corner of the park, where he very nearly forced the first Newcastle dropout.

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Nevertheless, Hymel Hunt appeared to have prepared for precisely this play, bringing the footy back as the Knights showed they could head up the middle too, this time with a nice offload out the back from Klemmer to Kurt Mann. They also upstaged the Cowboys with the right side play, as Hunt went from dropout-saver to tryscorer, collecting a short ball from Ponga to slice past the Hammer and put down the first try in the corner. The stadium went silent as Ponga contemplated the sideline angle, shanking the footy away to the left in possibly his worst kick of the year – a slightly worrying sign given that the Knights may well be up against Adam Reynolds’ boot if they make it to finals footy.

Not only did they not score on the restart, but they received one of their biggest blows when Blake Green came to ground beneath a McLean tackle, and then felt his leg fold awkwardly beneath him as Justin O’Neill came in to finish the job. The ex-Warrior had already had a face injury earlier in the game, yet this looked much more serious, as he was taken off the park immediately for what appeared to be an ACL injury.

This was such a long break that it effectively reset the game, helping the Cows settle into another really rapid set that ended just as abruptly when Hampton booted the ball towards Ponga, who sprinted towards it expecting a 40/20, and instead watching it sail over the sideline on the full. Klemmer made big metres on the next set, Ponga drove into the right corner, the Knights got another restart, and Ponga nearly assisted Guerra, who twisted and spun, but didn’t quite get the Steeden to ground.

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Still, Hampton conceded an offside penalty, setting up Guerra to barge at the same part of the defence, while Morgan was caught crowding two plays later. The Knights chose to tap and go again instead of kicking the goal – the wrong decision in such a low-scoting game, since despite a rapid left sweep, a big run at the posts from Barnett, and a good grubber from Mann, the final bounce defied Starford To’a, who popped the footy into touch under big pressure from the North Queensland defenders.

The Cowboys had now taken 26 tackles in their own twenty within the first twenty, with only a four-point deficit to show for it, although it was becoming paramount that they score a try of their own to translate all this defensive acumen into genuine momentum. Instead, Coen Hess set up Ponga for the first penalty kick with hand in the ruck, bringing the Knights to a six point lead as they dug deep for the dying minutes of the first stanza. Pearce seemed to have got them their next big chance with a kick that clipped Drinkwater to get his men a dropout two minutes out from the break, only for Aiden Guerra to pop Feldt’s ball straight back to the Hammer.

This ushered in the fastest accumulation of field position for North Queensland so far – so fast that the Knights were lucky it happened on the brink of half time, since the Cows would surely have scored with a couple more minutes to play with. First a ruck infringement from Hunt got them a restart, and then Fitzgibbon, Hunt and Pearce all leaked penalties in the space of forty seconds, with Peace’s deemed sin bin worthy on the stroke of half time.

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As luck would have it, Feldt missed the post-siren penalty kick, as Pearce headed to the sheds for a twenty minute break, while the Cowboys’ first big play with a one man advantage ended with an unforced error from Josh McGuire two minutes back from the break. The Knights got rolling again on the next set, and forced the next dropout off a Mann kick, but this time Feldt’s boot came good, with a bounce so fast and high that Hunt could only get a fingertip to the footy before it flew over the sideline.

North Queensland now had their second big attacking opportunity against twelve Knights, and for a moment the left sweep on the last look promising, only for Tom Opacic to flick the ball back to Phoenix Crossland, who lost it just as quickly. Newcastle wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest the call, but did better with the next intercept, which occurred straight out of the scrum. This was all Ponga, as the star fullback scooped up a wayward pass from Drinkwater and stormed all the way back to the North Queensland ten, fending off Hampton and succumbing to Hess, before feeding the footy to Shibasaki, who ran back to collect it out of dummy half instead of remaining in place for the offload that would probably have sent him over the line.

This was bad from the Newcastle no. 4, but it wasn’t all bad, since his bizarre run back to dummy half forced a professional foul from Mitch Dunn, making it twelve on twelve, while also setting up the next penalty kick for Ponga. Yet Ponga now missed his second kick of the night, as Adam Reynolds’ superb effort with the boot against Manly the night before threw the kicking deficits of this particular match into stark relief.

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Error now succeeded error, as the Cows conceded a dropout, Feldt made a handling error, and Shibasaki bobbled the footy as Hess and Taumaolo converged on him. The Knights got the upper hand in terms of manpower when Pearce returned from the bin, and seemed to glimpse their next try after an inspired Mann strip on Francis Molo. Sure enough, Herman Ese’ese reached out his right arm four plays later to slam the footy down beneath the posts, but the try was denied due to a Josh King obstruction.

The Cows got an offside penalty from Guerra, and a fresh burst of energy when Dunn returned from the bin, but lost their mojo again when Morgan made his own offside error, while the Knights secured another dropout a couple of minutes after. As the half hour approached, the match had descended into the toughest slog of Round 15, with both sides struggling to complete sets in a compelling or convincing way, and all the major kickers apparently unable to put pressure on the opposition. It felt like a big advantage, then, when Ponga booted through his second penalty kick off a third successive offside error, this time from Hess, although it didn’t do much to galvanise the Knights over the next couple of sets.

They only got their next big surge about eleven minutes out from the siren, when Barnett put in a barnstorming run to dummy and break through the line and make his way to the North Queensland ten, where Hess made up for his penalty by storming in to prevent him at the ten – his second massive trysaving tackle of the night following his effort to shut down Ponga twenty earlier.

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The Knights were leading 8-0 with ten minutes on the clock, but it still felt like North Queensland had a shot for a late win, since the hosts had only enjoyed 57% of the footy, and only come up with a single try against the second worst defence in the competition. The Cows got their last big chance seven minutes out, when Dunn was held up right on the line and Hampton dummied and glimpsed a space on the left edge, only for Saifiti to intercept a late pass from Opacic, commencing a flow of North Queensland errors to mirror that of the Knights at the end of the first stanza.

Tabuai-Fidow collected the next high ball, but Drinkwater put down a Jake Granville pass on the final play – the culminating of a long night of last-tackle issues – as McGuire took out his team’s frustration with a high hit on Ponga that saw him put on report. The Cows survived the changeover, and Feldt popped through a 20/40 on the first play that might just have won them the game if the Hammer hadn’t leaked an escorts penalty that paved the way for a try from Tuala, who smashed over in the corner off a cut-out ball from Ponga.

The Knights have now won 9/15 for the first time since 2009, and bumped up to sixth on the ladder with seven competition points separating them from the the Tigers at ninth, but this was still a pretty worrying game, capped off by one of the worst conversion attempts of Ponga’s career as the sky turned purple over Hunter. Only the Roosters are above them out of their last five opponents, but they’ll still need to dig deep, regroup and play like the Knights of 2020 when they take on the Warriors in Tamworth next week, while the Cowboys will be keen to continue amping up their defence, but also determined to put down points, when they rock up to meet the Sharks at Kogarah for Saturday night football.

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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