ROUND 19: Newcastle Knights v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (McDonald Jones Stadium, 20/9/20)

The Knights had won their past four games at McDonald Jones when they concluded a high-scoring round with a 42-18 win over St. George. Kalyn Ponga was back at no. 1, and Mason Lino was staring at no. 6 after Tex Hoy had injured his hamstring during yesterday’s Captain’s Run, while Edrick Lee had a private exemption and Kurt Mann was suspended after last week’s crusher tackle. Meanwhile, Euan Aitken and Adam Clune were also out with hamstring issues, and Max Feagai was debuting off the bench.

Newcastle kept St. George in their own end for the first set of the Alex McKinnon cup, but didn’t get to the end of their own, as Lino was called out for a forward pass to Lachlan Fitzgibbon before he could reach the kick. Tariq Sims almost broke through the line two tackles later, and Brayden Williame tried to follow suit up the left edge, while Jordan Pereira had a muscular run back in field. Yet the Knights survived, as Kalyn Ponga allowed a Ben Hunt kick to roll into touch for the first seven tackle set.

This time they didn’t need to get to the last play, as Chris Randall broke through the line on the first, finding nobody waiting at marker as he shifted it out to Ponga at the twenty, setting up his no. 1 to sail untouched under the crossbars. Randall was the fifth starting hooker for Newcastle this year, so this was a critical confidence booster, especially since Lino got the chance to make up for his opening error with a conversion from right in front.

Fitzgibbon and Mitch Barnett spearheaded Newcastle’s first big play up the middle on the restart, and once again the Dragons struggled to make it out of their own end, with only Corey Norman getting a metre over the halfway line to boot the kick away. Play paused when Hunt made a clear second effort to lock Hymel Hunt’s head in an awkward position beneath his shoulder, gifting the Knights a penalty on tackle one.

Newcastle now followed Ponga’s try with an equally strong short-range effort, as Lino hoisted it high to the right edge, where two tiers of players leaped up to collect it – Guerra above Norman, Shibasaki above Wiliame. Out of that maelstrom Shibasaki managed to gather it into his right shoulder with both hands, twisting around to land on his left hand in a sea of St. George boots, before finally reaching out his right palm to put it down, setting up Lino for a second conversion.

For the first time, on the restart, the Dragons kept Newcastle in their own end, but Mitchell Pearce still booted it all the way to the St. George ten, where Pereira caught it on the full but misread the spin, marking the start of a series of loose carries. Pearce shifted his men from side to side, and almost crashed over after receiving a Barnett offload, before Barnett had a crack at the line himself. He then collected a second offload from David Klemmer, only to follow Pereira by spilling it forward on the last.

St. George got their first penalty on the first play, when Pereira was called offside, and Matt Dufty followed by collecting an offload from Jackson Ford to break into space up the right edge. Yet Dufty also followed Hunt with another overlong kick, sending it over the dead ball line, and turning the first real attacking chance for St. George into another seven tackle set for Newcastle, only for Barnett to mirror Pereira and Pearce by flipping the footy forward.

Hunt tried to steady the ship with a scrum kick a set later, but instead sent it out on the full, while Randall responded with the clutchiest offload so far – a pass right along the ground to Barnett. Pearce grubbered on the last, but Dufty built on his left edge break with his second big play at fullback, collecting it on the full and taking it to the twenty. This looked set to be the fastest St. George sequence in some time, so it was a big rhythm killer when Norman became the fourth player to fumble the footy forward.

Tyson Frizell was now penalised for throwing out an arm after Lino had made his next kick, marking the start of a sustained period of Newcastle field position. A deft Ponga grubber off the right heel trapped Cody Ramsey behind the line for the first dropout, To’a bumped off Hunt for the biggest hit-up of the night on play one, the Knights got a restart off a Jackson Ford ruck error, and Guerra finally collected a short ball from Ponga right on the line to slam down the third Newcastle try.

They got an augmented restart when Norman sailed the kick over the dead ball line, starting from just outside the twenty, where Fitzgibbon drew in a sea of St. George defenders. Klemmer couldn’t find the offload on the second, and neither could Daniel Saifiti on the third, but it didn’t matter, since Saifiti collected a short ball from Randall on the fourth. Standing in a McInnes-Ford-Lawrie tackle, the big no. 10 remained on top to reach out his hand and put the Steeden down beside the right post.

This was weak defence from St. George, who needed to score next to prevent the game turning into a Newcastle training run. Thirty minutes in, they were boosted by a successful Captain’s Challenge to prove that an initial Norman knock-on had been an illegal strip for Randall – a bit of an unlucky call for the Newcastle hooker, since the carry hadn’t been that strong to begin with, while his contact wasn’t all that pronounced either.

Josh Kerr now got rolling with a strong run right up the middle, and Norman did well to avoid being dragged into touch by Shibasaki on the left edge, before ending with a deft crossfield chip. While Enari Tuala caught it on the full, the Dragons had showed some consolidation on this set, and forced Pearce to kick within his own forty, before forcing him to boot through the first St. George dropout of the night when a Hunt offload set up Norman for a chip that Hymel Hunt had to take into touch.

As with the last set, the Dragons showed more confidence moving up the middle, staying in the central third of the field until the penultimate play, when Ponga cleaned up a Dufty grubber. Once again, St. George hadn’t got to a try, but they’d also continued to build on their last set, so they were in prime position to capitalise when Shibasaki dropped the ball cold. In the last five minutes, they had 11-1 tackles in the twenty, and 81% of possession, so it was paramount that they deliver a meat pie here.

That’s just what they did out of the scrum, when Dufty fumbled and regathered the footy, before shifting it over to Zac Lomax for a sublime one-man effort. First he bumped into To’a, who made the mistake of trying to strip at the ten instead of completing the tackle, before shrugging off Tuala five metres out, and then ducking under Fitzgibbon and Klemmer to get the ball down – disposing of big men and backliners with no discrimination before converting his own try a few seconds later.

Nevertheless, the Knights got one more in before half time, when Ramsey let the kickoff sail straight through his hands, and Newcastle showed they could deliver on a  scrum play too. They didn’t cross over on the first tackle, but still got the chocolates, as Tuala received a flat ball from Pearce to pour through a hole on the left edge, before Lina added the last conversion of the first stanza to bring them to thirty points.

The first ten minutes after the break were a bit quieter, although the Knights still had the upper hand. Norman managed his best kick, but there was no real chase coming from the Dragons as To’a cleaned it up, while Wiliame put down a Sims pass into a Hymel Hunt tackle, although Ben Hunt Hunt and Lomax combined for the best St. George pack effort of the night to prevent To’a from crossing over in the left corner.

Newcastle got rolling again off another error from Ramsey, who knocked on while trying to intercept a Ponga pass on the short side, recovering their first half momentum when Herman Ese’ese sent Jacob Saifiti through a big hole in the middle of the park. Ponga offloaded on the line out of a Josh Kerr ankle tap, and for a moment it looked like Barnett had scored after Wiliame failed to clean up the footy, but the replay showed that Mitch had got a hand to it before Wiliame lost it over the try line.

Like the Dragons at the end of the first half, though, the Knights had put money in the bank with this set, and drew on its momentum next time they had ball in hand, muscling their way up the middle and tempting Lawrie into a strip. Pearce now started a right sweep that saw Shibasaki slice through at the ten, and while Pereira cleaned him up, Jacob Saifiti continued his speed up the middle, following brother Daniel by bumping off two big boppers – Sims and Ford this time – to score beneath the uprights.

The game was close to becoming a Newcastle training run again, but Ramsey got some real joy, making up for his two big errors with a pair of momentum-changing plays – first by forcing a mistake from Lino, and then by collecting a short ball from Lomax to make thirty metres up the right sideline before shifting it inside to Norman at the thirty. This was the collect of the night, as Norman reached down his right hand at speed to scoop up the Steeden just before it hit the turf, accelerating again to score untouched.

One more try here might have shifted the momentum for the final quarter, but instead a pair of errors from Wiliame and Pereira prevented the Red V from going back to back. That said, they did save what could have been a brilliant Newcastle try, when Ponga ran deep into the right corner and sent out a cut-out pass that Hymel Hunt fumbled and shifted harbour-bridge style back in field, aiming for Shibasaki only for Lawrie to collect it instead.

This prompted a brief St. George resurgence, as Frizell made a half-break, Kerr barged into the defence at speed, and Norman opted to run the ball up the middle instead of resorting to an early kick, while Dufty ended with a low grubber that To’a was forced to take into touch. For a moment it looked like Dufty had scored on the third tackle of the dropout, but the replay showed that contending with the right post had disoriented him into a double knock-on of Norman’s grubber.  

A Sims knock-on set up Newcastle for their final try, as Ponga got his short-range assist on the other side of the field with a cut-out pass for Tuala. Lino added the conversion while Ben Hunt looked on from the sidelines, his quad iced up since the fifty-eighth minute, before Lomax ended the game as he’d begun it – with a massive one-man effort to get his men some pride before they headed to the sheds for a second time.  

This time he disposed of Ponga too, leaping above the star fullback, who skittled to ground as he collected the high ball, tucked it under his right arm, and crashed over the line, culminating his year of spectacular catches. Converting his own try once again, he’d also notched up his first double of the year – a rallying-point as St. George prepare to take on the Storm for the last regular match of the truncated 2020 season.

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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