The Knights had won their last three games in the Hunter, and were sitting at 7th, due to their draw against the Panthers, while the Sharks were just behind them in 8th, and had lost all five games against top eight teams, when they met at McDonald Jones on Friday night. Home games here against Cronulla always have a special intensity, since the Sharks offered them their biggest ever Hunter loss, 0-62, in Round 10 2016, but the Knights came away with the chocolates tonight, notching up an impressive 38-10 win.
The win was even more impressive in that the Sharkies had three big players back on the park – Chad Townsend was back from his calf injury, Josh Dugan had recovered from his knee and toe problems, and Jesse Ramien’s eye was good to go, while Bryson Goodwin was replacing Sione Katoa on the wing, and Andrew Fifita was named in the opening squad. Townsend would be out again just as quickly, however, getting himself put on report and sent off in the second half for a dangerous tackle on Kalyn Ponga.
Blayke Brailey sent the kickoff too far, and Gehamat Shibasaki planted a boot over the sideline to get his men a burst of field position before they’d even had a touch of the footy. Kalyn Ponga then busted through a tackle on play two, forcing Wade Graham into a big trysaver for his first hit, and Mason Lino aimed his first grubber at the right post, where Graham missed it, leaving it open for David Klemmer to scoop it up, only for Graham to bring his right leg down on top of it, and so prevent Klem getting there.
The Bunker took a long time to assess the play, partly because a stadium worker had walked in front of the camera at the most opportune angle. By the time the Sharks fed the scrum the game had effectively restarted, gifting them some breathing-space to get over Newcastle’s explosive opening. The Knights didn’t lose much momentum on their next set, ferrying the footy up the middle third, but Cronulla got the upper hand with a miss under the high ball by Ponga, bookended by two calls of six again.
One tackle after the second call of six again, they decisively reversed the opening rhythm of the game, shifting the Steeden right, where a perfectly timed assist from Will Kennedy set up Ronaldo Mulitalo to swerve back in field at the very second he got on the outside of Enari Tuala. This was a dazzling piece of footwork, allowing Mulitalo to cross over untouched, and cruise around to ground the ball behind the posts, even if the easier angle didn’t help Braydon Trindall to slot through the conversion.
Kennedy had also assisted the tryscoring sequence with a consummate response to Ponga’s drop – waiting, patiently, for the Steeden to roll down Lino’s back, and then collecting it clean to get his men into position. That said, the Sharkies didn’t do much with the restart, while the Knights got their first call of six again next time they had possession, and built quickly with an eccentric offload from Mitch Barnett, who simply dropped the ball back vertically for Kurt Mann to put in some second phase play.
Pearce accelerated into a half-break, Chad Townsend was pinged for a ball strip right on the line, and the Knights were finally back to their opening intensity, ten minutes in. All it took was an elegant cut-out ball from Mann out of dummy half to send Starford To’a across in the left corner, where he didn’t even really need to get on the outside of Mulitalo – just maintain his line to stroll over untouched. It was Mann’s eighth try assist of the year, and possibly his most dexterous for Newcastle.
Ponga followed Trindall by missing the kick, keeping it 4-4, but the Knights had the upper hand, since this had been a considerably more confident try. They also ended their restart better, with a huge bomb from Lino that was just big enough to trap Kennedy on the line without offering him any hope of a seven tackle set. Conversely, Trindall’s next kick didn’t get beyond the Newcastle thirty, so the red and blue effectively started their next set as if they’d got a penalty on the first tackle.
Four plays later, Ponga crossed over as simply as To’a had scored, except that this was even more a one-man effort – a perfect fusion of speed and strength. Receiving the Steeden from Lino twelve metres out, he defied two converging tackles – the first from Braden Hamlin-Uele and Scott Sorensen, the second from Kennedy and Briton Nikora – dodging away from the first, and coming to ground under the last. Once again, though, he missed the kick, ricocheting it off the right post to keep it a four point lead.
Ponga now had ninety tackle busts, putting him third in the 2020 season, and he got a chance for more a minute later, when Kennedy lost the footy on the first tackle of the next Cronulla set. He slipped beneath Graham three plays later, but luckily both players got to their feet without any injuries, before a Lino grubber and a good read from To’a saw the no. 2 get a double as Mulitalo tumbled over him right on the line – the closest putdown yet, as he dribbled the footy down his elbow before a very soft grounding.
This was a scintillating kick from Lino, threading the needle perfectly to defy several lines of defence – especially Trindall, who didn’t have a chance of getting to it as the Steeden slid past him towards the chalk. Perhaps that’s what motivated the Knights to put Lino on kicking duties at this exact moment – and the decision paid off, since he booted through the first two-pointer of the night, finally bringing Newcastle beyond a converted try lead, despite the fact that they had three tries to one on the board.
It seemed an age since the Sharkies had a threatening set, especially since the Knights got a restart midway through the restart, dominating the middle third so thoroughly that Toby Rudolf was tempted into dumping Lino on his head, as a sea of Newcastle players stormed into express their dissatisfaction. This was very much a dumping tackle, rather than a borderline lifting tackle, and so Rudolf was put on report – yet this wouldn’t even be the most dangerous play of this increasingly volatile match.
Graham was also put on report for coming into help Rudolf lift Lino, who booted through the penalty kick to bring his men to 16-4 a second later. The longest arm-wrestle of the first half now ensued, and the Sharks made some headway, but the Knights maintained dominance through two key moments – first, a forward pass from Trindall to Mulitalo just as Cronulla were shaping to consolidate on the wing, and then a huge tackle from Pearce that rattled the footy out of Bryson Goodwin’s grasp.
Two tackles later, Peace sent a wide ball out to Ponga, who once again smashed through from about twelve metres out, although this time he only had one pair of converging tackles to contend with – Nikora and Trindall – before crossing over without a hand on him. It was his fifth career double, and his 28th try, prompting another great bromance moment with Pearce as Lino lined up the kick to make it three from three, bringing Newcastle to a 22-4 lead on the cusp of half time.
A moment later, Lino looked like he’d added a try, when Ponga made up for his earlier miss under the high ball by leaping up from five metres away for a courageous contest with Kennedy in the air, only to knock it into the Cronulla fullback and so deny himself what would have been one of the great try assists of the season if he’d pulled it off. It was also a disappointing call for Lino, who had caught and ground the Steeden just as Ponga popped it back – and perhaps a bit of a tough call on its own terms too.
Despite an opening knock-on from Royce Hunt, the Knights couldn’t make much headway after returning from the sheds, and would have to wait until the final quarter for their last trio of tries. Ponga was soon down in backplay with a broken nose, but he didn’t take any time to get back into first gear, making metres as soon as he resumed play, and following Shibasaki twelve minutes in by putting a boot over the try line to get his men another seven tackle set.
Yet this was an even more gymnastic display than Shibasaki’s opening effort, since Ponga had to do the splits right on the chalk to secure the extra tackle, getting to his feet just as rapidly to make the most of it with a quick tap. It was a power move, and Townsend tried to contain it with a shoulder charge that absolutely skittled the Newcastle fullback. As a result, he was sent off for his troubles in his comeback game – the third send-off of the 2020 season, which now had the most send-offs since 2012.
While Townsend was also the first Cronulla player to be sent off since Paul Aiton in 2011, and Graham seemed injured in backplay, the Sharkies were remarkably resilient after this low point, building on a Barnett error and a pair of Jacob Saifiti errors – offside and dissent – to consolidate into their first dropout. Connor Tracey stepped up immediately in his no. 7’s absence, securing the repeat set before collecting a Brailey ball, dummying left, and bumping off Lino and Fitzgibbon to score on the right edge.
For a moment it looked like we might be in for an improbable late comeback from Cronulla, but an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge and yet another lifting tackle, this time on Klemmer from Hamlin-Uele, who was also put on report, shifted the game back in Newcastle’s direction for the final fifteen minutes. The Knights elasticized across the park in the wake of Hamlin-Uele’s infraction, before a deft Tuala grubber defied Kennedy right on the line, getting the home team a much-needed dropout.
Kennedy tried to recoup by only kicking ten metres, and Goodwin would have got the ball back if not for a desperate tackle from Brodie Jones that forced him to knock on right on the sideline. The Knights got six again two tackles out of the scrum, and while Nikora came in hard on Pearce, the captain got his next assist two tackles after that, with a good read on a hard run from Fitzgibbon, who caught the Steeden at speed, twisted out of a legs tackle from Nikora, and barged through Kennedy on the chalk.
Fitzgibbon now had his first try of the year, the Knights finally had their first try of the second half, and, while Lino missed his first conversion, Ponga would get the first hat trick of his career three minutes later. Newcastle got a restart midway through the restart, and their star fullback broke through from the ten metre line for his third try of the night. The first time he’d busted through two pairs of tackles, the second time one pair, but all that stood between him and the line now was an ankle tap from Tracey.
Full credit to Pearce and Mann for the rapid right sweep that assisted Jones’ assist – and to Tracey, who made up for letting Ponga through by giving Cronulla their last big burst at the line next time he had ball in hand. Breaking through the line with a tough fend and tackle bust, Tracey chipped at speed for a near-perfect bounce right on the Newcastle line, where Shibasaki somehow got ahead of Kennedy, secured it clean, and remained in the field of play to avoid another Cronulla dropout.
To be fair, the Sharkies did get a dropout just a set later, following a slow peel from Klemmer, but Ponga quickly regathered the footy when a Tracey pass ricocheted off Hamlin-Uele’s chest. Ramien grabbed him to prevent a linebreak, but Pearce was just as staunch at the other end of the park, booting through a perfectly weighted kick to ftrap Mulitalo in the left corner for the final dropout of the match.
Kennedy attempted another short dropout, but the ball only travelled seven metres, gifting Newcastle one last penalty. Instead of taking the kick, the Knights chose to tap and go – and this decision propelled them into a truly glorious finish after remaining scoreless for the first twenty-five minutes of the second stanza. After taking the first hit-up in front of the posts, Josh King collected a short ball from Mann on the third, and bumped off two defenders to put down his very first try in his 59th NRL game.
This was exactly the emotionally resonant ending that Newcastle deserved after such a momentous game, as Ponga rushed in to congratulate his no. 16 with blood still on his nose. The Knights will be on a winner’s high, then, when they travel to the SCG to meet the Roosters next week, while the Sharks will be sweating on the judiciary outcomes as they prepare to host the Warriors at Jubilee for the last match of Round 18.