The Knights were missing a plethora of players due to injury, suspension and Origin when they hosted the Eels in the Hunter on Saturday night, but most notably Kalyn Ponga, whose absence was felt in every part of the park. Still, they had good reason to feel pumped, since they were celebrating Old Boys Day with a honour guard from the veterans who had won that mythical premiership over Parramatta twenty years ago, while Jack Johns was making his debut, ushering in the first father-son player combo in Newcastle history.
They were also coming off a galvanising 18-10 win over the Sea Eagles at the end of Round 12, but that momentum eluded them here, as the Eels put down their most points in a half against Newcastle since 2004, and almost reversed the 24-0 halftime score of the 2001 grand final by heading into the break 22-0. That Parra ended up with a 40-4 win, and kept Newcastle out until the last minute, was all the more impressive in that Mitch Moses missed all but two conversions, and was taken off the park in the last quarter as a precautionary measure.
That said, the Eels did have Moses, Clint Gutherson and Reed Mahoney, none of whom had received the Origin call up, meaning that, with Dylan Brown, they had full license to showcase their spine against a heavily depleted Newcastle outfit. At times they felt more like the Harlem Globetrotters than a genuinely competing team, as they experimented with all the different ways they could revise and reshape Waqa Blake’s opening drives up the left, while providing a masterclass in how to self-correct after the lapses in energy that plague even the best games.
Sauaso Sue took the first hit-up, and Jacob Saifiti followed in his wake, and then made more metres on the fourth, committed to doing the work of two Saifitis with brother Daniel in Origin camp. Waqa Blake got his men out of the twenty with a good run up the left early in the count, and Dylan Brown took his first kick in three games, following his tackle on Drew Hutchison in Round 3 against the Roosters. Brayden Musgrove turned over the footy early in the next set, and the Eels had the first scrum and close-range attack of the afternoon.
Blake started with another strong charge on the left, Moses initiated a sweep out to Clint Gutherson on the right, and Mahoney pivoted out of dummy half to clear up space for Ryan Matterson to barge through a one-on-one with Tex Hoy and dispose of Bradman Best right on the line. In their first big linkup, the Parramatta spine had delivered, even if Moses lobbed the conversion attempt too wide, a worrying sign given his streakiness with the boot. Still, they’d quelled the home crowd on Old Boys Day, and were sitting at a point per minute.
Moses tried to pop Blake through the line with a short ball midway through the restart, but Enari Tuala was in place to shut down this burgeoning momentum on the left wing. Likewise, the Knights looked good for their first break midway through the next set, when Jayden Brailey attempted a cut-out pass to Musgrove, only for it to bounce off Kurt Mann instead, giving the blue and gold a full set in the opposition ten once Moses made twenty metres on the first carry. With that acceleration, and a Sue ruck error, Parramatta felt destined to score.
No surprise that the crossover came from Blake, who made good on his three enterprising plays up the left edge (by collecting a wide ball from his halfback, pivoting off the left boot, and slicing through the line, although the call ended up being no try due to an Isaiah Papali’i obstruction on Clifford back infield. For the moment, Newcastle had survived, and had to improve on their 34% possession, especially since yet another aborted Blake play had just made Parra even hungrier, and probably fuelled them into the cascade of points to come.
It didn’t take the Knights long to reach the line, but they overtook themselves on the fourth play, with a right sweep that left Starfod To’a with nothing to do but flick it back inside in the face of a big Maika Sivo tackle, as Moses scooped up the Steeden clinically for what looked like a seamless recovery. Instead, Papali’i made his second error in as many sets, coughing up the footy and giving Newcastle their first stint on the Parramatta chalk. Yet Hoy couldn’t get the offload away on the first, before Moses put his body on the line to hold up Brodie Jones.
That superb effort from Moses drew in a host of other defenders, and galvanised even more to hold up Mitch Barnett when he carried the footy over the line. It was enough to decimate the set, as Mann was done for a forward pass, and Reagan Campbell-Gillard made fifteen minutes after contact to get his men over the halfway line, before Clifford conceded six again with a ruck error. That just made it all the more deflating when Marata Niukore became the next Parramatta enforcer to put down the football, and grant Newcastle another scrum feed.
Little by little, the Knights were starting to recover some momentum here, or at least dent the Eels’ serene command of the opening part of the game. The end of this set spoke to their frustrated vision, as Mann made a rousing run up into the twenty, albeit on the penultimate play, before the locals rallied to clean up Dylan Brown after Clifford’s kick sailed straight through Enari Tuala’s outstretched arms. Clearly, it wasn’t enough for the Knights to self-correct, or wake up at the end of the set; they needed a powerful end-to-end effort now.
What they didn’t need was for Tuala to be put on report for dangerous contact with Sivo on the ground, nor for Jacob Saifit to join him a moment later. With that rapid accumulation of field position, and a full set in the opposition half, Parra looked set to return to their fierce flow of the first five minutes, but the Knights steeled their defence here, keeping their ten-metre zone intact, and forcing Moses to chip it out to the right wing. The chip was enough, as Matto came up with it, and followed his try with an equally deft assist in the same spot.
Lachlan Fitzgibbon was a better foil for Matterson than Hoy had been, but where the ex-Tiger parlayed his strength against the stand-in fullback, now he relied on his balletic dexterity, flicking the footy around the corner for Haze Dunster to put down his first four in the NRL with Musgrave on his back. Moses might have missed his second conversion, but there was something rousing about the fact that his chip had initially rolled off Dylan Brown, who looked set for another disappointing moment under the kick before Matterson stepped in to save it.
The try, then, was a small comeback, and a promise that Moses could also get his kicking game back on track if he settled into the same spirit of self-correction. Moses and Brown’s trajectories came together again at the end of the restart, when Mitch struck the footy at a unusual angle, only reaching a moderate height, but garnering a ricochet so dangerous that Hoy was unable to take it even on the third bounce, leaving it open for Brown to take it on the full five metres out from the line, for what could have been the Parramatta consolidator.
Instead, Hoy hammered him, and forced the footy free, while Barnett was floating close enough in backplay to land on it before the Eels could nab another try here. With this sequence, at the start of the second quarter, the game took on the volatility that comes when a one-sided affair starts to feel like an equal contest. Sure, Parramatta got a surge of adrenalin by nearly securing one of their best tries of their season, but Newcastle were just as pumped by the ingenuity they’d brought to shutting it down. After all, it was only an eight-point game.
Connor Watson embodied a Knights outfit that were starting to risk more enterprising plays when he made five metres through Shaun Lane, stood in the tackle for a five seconds, and then risked the offload, but once again the red and blue had overtaken themselves, and the call came down as knock-on. Yet Parramatta weren’t sinking into the same serendipity either, as Matterson followed his try and assist on the right edge by finding himself in just the wrong place to take a Dylan Brown chip that would have been an easy four if he took it on the chest.
Deflating the legacy of those two superb right-edge plays generated a new flow for Newcastle, who responded with their own best right side sweep so far, off a mercurial ball from Jones to Hoy that split the difference between an offload and catch-and-pass. While Moses took Clifford’s chip easily, the Knights were still motivated enough to keep Parra in their red zone for the longest period so far, forcing Moses to boot it well within his own thirty as the light turned golden over New Lambton.
This was the first time that Newcastle had genuinely seemed to be consolidating, as Best now followed that terrific right-side sequence by making thirty metres up the left off a wide ball from Mann, who received it again and sent it back inside for Josh King to steady the set. Having flexed their muscles on the right, the left and now the middle, the Knights only needed one more confident right wing play to complete this consolidation, and they almost got it when Clifford sent a harbour bridge ball out for Tuala.
Sometimes the sheer trajectory of this kind of wide ball says everything about a team’s momentum, and while Clifford cleared the Parra defenders and found his mark, his arc didn’t have the perfect parabola needed to propel Newcastle into a really convincing conclusion to this escalating attack. Tuala had time to get the kick away, but the Knights’ mounting confidence dissolved in the wake of a supremely simple play from Gutho, who waited until the very last minute for the Steeden to go dead, avoiding the dropout with To’a behind him.
Even worse for Newcastle, Parra now showed them how to take control of both sides of the park. Where it had taken the hosts successive sets to assert themselves on left, right and middle, the blue and gold only needed a single set. Midway through the count, they shifted right, where Tom Opacic saw there was nothing doing on the sideline, and popped it back inside to Matterson, who got some joy after missing that Dylan Brown kick by starting the rapid sweep back to the left sideline that set up Gutho and Blake to meet for a sublime assist.
Gutho started with a double pump to Blake, who contended with the defence for an age, eventually flicking it back for his fullback to send it out to Sivo, who was always going to score from close range. In the breadth of this play, which had stretched from wing to wing, and the sheer number of players that Gutho and Blake had drawn into their to-and-fro assist, the Eels seemed to have disposed of the entire defensive line here, bringing them to fourteen unanswered points once Moses slotted through his first conversion of the afternoon.
No surprise, then, that this was the consolidation try of the game, as the Knights crumpled further under a Fitzgibbon report and Clifford booting it out on the full, and Parramatta put down two more tries before the break, despite Jack Johns making father-and-son history by trotting on at the thirty-fifth minute. Accordingly, both of these tries drew on this scintillating left edge effort, starting with the best bullet ball of the round from Gutho, who sent it straight across the chest of Tuala and Best to put Sivo across for the fiftieth try of his career.
If Clifford’s harbour bridge ball never quite found its trajectory, then the perfect spiral of Gutho’s assist guaranteed this try before it ever found his mark. Moses may have missed another conversion, but the two points were absorbed into a try on the restart that summarised everything great about this first forty of footy from Parramatta. Moses and Brown got the play rolling with a pair of wide balls, and Blake followed by driving it into the left wing, before popping it back around the corner for Sivo to continue the momentum.
From there, Sivo made more headway, bringing in a host of defenders and offloading at the last moment to Gutho, who popped over in the wing to bring his men to 22 unanswered points after another Moses miss. In the manner it congealed the spine into what was effectively a team try, and in mirroring the last Gutho-Sivo linkup in the wing, this was such a staunch gesture on the verge of half time that the Knights had to deliver immediately when they returned from the sheds to prevent Parra taking total control of the second stanza too.
Instead, they spent their first few tackles in their own end, and had barely broken their red zone when Clifford fumbled the play-the-ball in his eagerness to feed it out to Barnett. Blake was raring for more metres up the left straight off the scrum, Lane added to his post-contacts a play later to bring Parra into the ten, and Bryce Cartwright followed with a strong charge at the line on the left, in search of his fourth try as an Eel. He got it a play later, in the same spot, after a Matto-Brown offload pivoted the play out to the right and back to the left wing again.
This was arguably the premium short-ball sequence of the night, at least as far as Moses’ superb pass to Lane was concerned, since the actual assist from Lane was flat enough to be forward – an offload around Clifford that had the Newcastle faithful booing in the stands when the replay unfolded. Still, with an on-field ruling of try, there wasn’t enough in it for a reversal, and so the Eels skyrocketed to 28-8 with another Moses conversion, and surged up the park on the restart, until Blake tapped the kick back for Papali’i to feed it on to Mahoney.
The Knights got some closure when Moses was now pinged for a forward pass, since the Eels looked good to score on this left edge if everything went smoothly, or at least tempt the visitors into an offside or ruck error. Yet Parra didn’t miss a beat, starting their next set right where they left off, and defying some strong early Newcastle defence with a Kaufusi-Papali’i offload and Blake’s best post-contacts of the night off a skittering run across the defensive line. The hosts survived, but there was no doubt that the Eels were escalating once again.
Dunster sensed it too, and went for an intercept midway through the next Newcastle set, and while he knocked it down, his initiative fuelled Parra further, as Moses and Blake combined to prevent a Best break up the right edge, and Mahoney did the same when Watson poked his nose through the line in the middle third on the next tackle. Dunster had another challenge when he found himself face to face with Fitzgibbon off a hospital pass from Lane early in the next stint, and again his courage galvanised his men into another burst of adrenalin.
Blake rode it all the way up the left sideline, with the Eels’ first break since the break, and Moses matched it with a big boot to the right, where Dunster again found himself in the spotlight, scrambling to scoop up the Steeden but without securing it in time to prevent Best from slamming him over the sideline. Nevertheless, he flicked it back in field soon enough to avoid the error, tempting what seemed a Musgrove knock-on, but turned out to be an Opacic mistake after Newcastle sent it upstairs for the first successful challenge of the evening.
The result was all the more agonising for Parramatta in that the ex-Cowboy managed to get the Steeden under his arm, and would have scored one of the more prodigious tries of the game if Musgrove hadn’t knocked it from his grasp. Meanwhile this had been a double let-off for Musgrove, who’d been cleared of both the initial knock-on and of a strip on Opacic on the line, as Moses and Gutho barked out their frustration and the visitors packed the scrum to a raucous home crowd. If the Knights were going to hit back, this had to be the moment.
It couldn’t have been more deflating, then, when one of the most intricate challenge replays of the year gave way to a Best cough-up on tackle one. Moses wasted no time sending Blake into the left corner, before inserting himself at dummy half and directing play back inside for Papali’i and Brown to take consolidating runs. Continuing this superb playmaking sequence, Moses showed he could shape for every part of the park, popping his best wide ball out to Blake, who gave Dunster a master class in how to deal with defenders crowding on the wing.
He flicked it back inside at just the right moment to force Tuala to take it into touch, garnering a dropout as the drums rang out over the Hunter, before Opacic got some joy with a try on the fifth tackle, on his fifth attempt, to prove that Parra could score just as clinically on their right edge. Mahoney mirrored Moses with a beautiful wide ball out to his centre, who tumbled over Musgrove, and considered every available angle, before finally grounding the footy, putting the deceleration and deflation of that challenge well and truly behind him.
Moses’ calf injuries seemed to be getting the better of him, and perhaps explained his inconsistency with the boot, since he now left the park as Gutho slotted through the extras. Without their halfback, the Eels would concede the only Newcastle try, and only score another converted try themselves, but this was still the right decision with a 34-0 lead. For the moment, though, they didn’t show any signs of slowing down, following a convincing restart with a damaging kick chase to force the Knights to work it back from their own try line.
Matt Croker did well with the post-contacts midway through the set, but even then the hosts didn’t make much headway here, while the Eels showed how leisurely they could work it from their line, lingering in their thirty without seeming too fussed, before Lane jogged it through a couple of defenders to the forty, and Dylan Brown booted it all the way from his forty to the Newcastle ten. Meanwhile, Croker seemed exhausted by this first stint in the NRL as he came off the park, and Gutho came up with his most prodigious defensive play of the night.
It was a chargedown on a Mann kick, made at such close range that most other players would have knocked on – and Gutho came pretty close, losing it into his chest, and down his left leg, before finally regathering it at an awkward angle for the clutchiest collect so far. With Moses on the park, the sheer spectacle of this dexterity might have produced points immediately, but the Knights unexpectedly got a fresh burst of field position soon after, when Dunster was put on report for an aerial tackle, despite seeming to have only had eyes for the football.
Word now came down from the sheds that Moses had indeed only being taken off the park for precautionary purposes, while To’afinished a tough stint against Sivo with a groin injury. Watson’s face was covered on blood on his next carry, and Fitzgibbon was just as much a warrior when he burst into space up the right, and yet even that intensity was absorbed back into another quick turnover, along with a strong steadying run from Carty, who drew in several defenders and decelerated the Newcastle drive on tackle one.
Again, this would have been a terrific time for a Moses kick, as the game decelerated further for both sides with a fairly standard Mahoney effort that Hoy took in goal and brought back into the field of play. Although there were seventeen minutes left on the clock, you sensed that Parra were already conserving themselves for next week, aware that the peak of the game had passed with their representative halfback off the park. Brown hoisted it high on the next set, but again Hoy didn’t face much challenge in taking it in the face of the Parra pack.
If the Eels were going to elasticise further, they needed to rediscover their offload game, which they were leading with a remarkable 17-0 tally. They got their next shot when Barnett followed Clifford with a fumbled play-the-ball, as Brown looked for second phase straight out of the scrum, but didn’t end up needing it with Brailey called offside. Nathan Brown, too, relinquished the offload two tackles into the repeat set, while Matto also couldn’t get it away, as play paused for Mahoney to get medical attention after copping a late shot from Sue.
The ex-Bulldog was sent to the bin, Parra got a fresh set right on the line, and Lane finally got that elusive eighteenth offload away, only for Mahoney, still smarting from the contact, to flick it forward, before the Knights got six again themselves, off a ruck infringement from RCG. Like the Eels before them, however, they had to pause the set, once again for Mahoney, who reached out an arm to stop Clifford from charging his way down field, but dislodged his pectoral in the process, a serious enough situation for him to join Moses on the sideline.
This culminated a hard few weeks for Mahoney, who’d been denied an Origin berth now that Harry Grant was ready, and yet the Eels hit back immediately, off a second chargedown up the Knights’ left edge, this time off a Barnett kick. Brown burst into space, surged down the sideline, and finally found the brilliant offload Parramatta needed when he flicked it across to Dunster through a Mann tackle deep in Newcastle’s end. From there, the young backliner made it all the way to the opposition twenty before Jones finally brought him to ground.
Brown now had to do his job and Moses’ job in a single play, and was momentarily flummoxed on the right edge, where he turned 360 degrees before Lane took a settling run up the middle, and Niukore breathed new life into the set with an aggressive run back on the right – the perfect pivot for Nathan Brown to start a sweep out to the left, where Gutho was cleaned up, but Carty brought it all together with a extemporised gruber that Blake bounced on in goal, bringing Parramatta to their final score of forty when their captain booted through the two.
This had been their most precarious try of the night, and it was different enough from the seamless professionalism of the main part of their game to empower Newcastle into a consolation effort a few minutes later. Even then, it took a dropout, a dangerous hit from Kaufusi, and a Will Smith error, but the Knights finally got there in the end, as Tuala carved up the right wing off a short ball from Mann. Gutho had stripped the footy from Watson as the ex-Rooster was about to score a few plays before, but the Eels couldn’t prevent this one.
Even so, Clifford missed the conversion, and four points wasn’t much of a consolation for a Newcastle outfit looking to play deep into finals footy this year. They’ll be looking for a big win over the Rabbitohs next week, and can’t get Ponga back from injury soon enough, since his playmaking was sorely missed tonight. On the other side of the Steeden, Parra will be keen to get Moses involved again, especially since they’re taking on the Tigers at Bankwest, a fixture that always seems to draw out his brilliant attitude and aggression.