Saturday night’s clash in Newcastle had the potential to be one of the most exciting matches of Round 15. Mitchell Pearce was back for only his fifth game of the season, and the conditions were the windiest of any NRL game all year, with the gusts above Hunter exceeding 50 km/h, making kicking a real liability, especially in the second half, when the Warriors were playing into the breeze. And, in its own way, this was a memorable game – the lowest-scoring match of the year, at 16 points all up, after Raiders-Sharks and Panthers-Storm only made it to 22.
In other words, this was the closest we’ve yet come, in 2021, to a single-figure scoreline from both teams – something we haven’t seen since the COVID lockdown early last year. Yet whereas low-scoring games can sometimes be the most exciting, this was a fairly drab, dour affair – a matter of both teams missing good opportunities, and failing to capitalise on errors, rather than consistently outstanding defence or attack. Only in the final ten minutes did the match really warm up, when the Knights narrowly avoided golden point with a last-ditch try.
Jake Clifford’s kickoff hung in the breeze for a few seconds before Reece Walsh finally collected it, giving the Newcastle chase time to surround him for the opening tackle. Bayley Sironen then recouped some field position on tackle three by slamming and slipping into Mitch Barnett, who took a breather on the wing before a tentative run on the third play of the following set, only for Lachlan Fitzgibbon to knock on Newcastle’s first attempt to spread the footy, losing a Kurt Mann pass as the Knights tried to shift the play out to their left edge.
New Zealand had the scrum, but the Knights got the ball back immediately off a Walsh error, compounding this reversal with the first sustained field position of the game when Ben Murdoch-Masila was pinged for a dangerous tackle. Clifford grubbered as the rain got heavy over Hunter, conceding a penalty of his own for holding back a moment later, but making up for it with two big hits on Kodi Nikorima to contain the best run from the Warriors so far.
Pearce started to step up at the end of the next set, maintaining his balance into a low tackle from Jazz Tevaga while managing to get the first offload away to Jayden Brailey, only for Walsh to clean up Clifford’s grubber with no troubles. It had been a fairly evenly paced start, so the stage was set for a big effort, or a big error, to tip the scales in one team’s favour. Pearce was next to attempt it, building on the first restart by booting through the biggest bomb so far, and timing the wind so it hung for a few seconds before falling almost vertically.
Walsh was up for the challenge, and responded with the best take under the high ball so far, while the Warriors got their next chance with a high shot from Josh Curran on Brailey at the end of the following tackle count. Mann had them inside the ten by the fourth tackle, where they got a restart off a ruck error from Tevaga – the best attacking opportunity so far – and yet Fitzgibbon now made another error, knocking on into a combined tackle from Walsh and Tohu Harris. The Warriors had their second scrum, and this time Walsh got to a decent kick.
The chase was even better, keeping Newcastle trapped in their own end for most of the set, forcing Clifford to kick right on the halfway line as Tevaga was taken from the field for an HIA after copping an elbow in the head from Barnett following Fitzgibbon’s error. Taniela Otukolo came on for his debut as Sean O’Sullivan shone on the next kick, lobbing it downfield while ensuring that it sat up just beyond the Newcastle line. Again, the Knights struggled to get out of their own end, even with a big run from Daniel Saifiti, as Clifford kicked from the same spot.
Walsh now stepped into the spotlight, condensing the potential of the New Zealand kick chase by making it five metres out from the line, where he ran into one of the biggest trysavers of Round 15 from Brailey. The Warriors weren’t done yet, moving through some deft second phase play from Addin Fonua-Blake, and then a right sweep on the fourth, where everything should have come together, since there was easily space for Euan Aitken to cross. Instead, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s pass drifted forward, while Aitken spilled it over the sideline anyway.
Still, the Warriors had easily righted the early burst of Newcastle field position, and moved confidently up the park on their next set, when Walsh made decent metres on the other wing, before Barnett collected an average last-tackle option in front of the crossbar. The Knights recovered further from Walsh’s barnstorming energy with a restart early in the count, thanks to an error from Curran. Pearce tried to get a sweep going, and Clifford made a shot at the line, but the last-tackle play was spotty here as well, as RTS took Pearce’s grubber on the full.
This was starting to become a real arm-wrestle, as O’Sullivan collected a Tevaga offload for a strong run that would have segued into a linebreak without a Saifiti ankle tap, only for Otukolo to concede possession back to the Knights with an obstruction play on the last tackle. The second quarter had arrived with no points, as the Knights got another restart when Otukolo followed his penalty with an offside error. Again, despite this early surge of field position, Newcastle wilted at the end, with three Warriors collecting David Klemmer right on the line.
New Zealand were the next to get a restart, on their first tackle, and it was a testament to the sluggish speed of this game that Sironen fumbled the play-the-ball a few seconds later. Walsh had been the main adrenalin injection so far, but he was now receiving regular check-ins from the trainer for an apparent leg issue that would perhaps feed into the hamstring strain that ruled him out of his Origin debut a week later. One of the halves needed to step up – and Clifford did just that on the next set, booting through a deft grubber that trapped RTS in goal.
Roger tried to ground it, lost it, and left it open for Clifford to chase down, so the question was whether he had made enough downward motion to preclude the Newcastle five-eighth scoring the first try. He had, but the Knights still had the first dropout, and a potential game-changer, while the Warriors had a chance to get their defensive line in order while Nikorima got his right ankle strapped. It was pretty drab, then, when Mann fumbled the kickoff while taking it on the ground, only just avoiding knocking it onto the turf or into Otoukolo’s chase.
Things got worse for Mann two tackles later, at the end of a left sweep, when he let a Clifford pass bounce, leaving it open for Aitken to get his try on the wing after all, while also making good on the long-range vision of Walsh’s almost-try. Scooping up the footy, Aitken ran ninety metres, eluding an ankle tap from Young at the twenty, and then a second tap from Dominic Young deep within Newcastle territory, leaving Brailey as last line of defence once again. This time, the young hooker couldn’t make it, so Aitken had the first try.
With Walsh booting the extras through from the sideline (his first attempt at goal in the NRL), this genuinely felt like a consolidation try – it resolved Walsh’s run, Brailey’s defence, and the aborted right sweep from RTS to Aitken into a stunning affirmation that New Zealand could self-correct and win the arm-wrestle. In any other game this might have produced a cascade of Warriors points, or even got both teams into a tryscoring groove, but this was the last time New Zealand got on the board, while the Knights would only do four better by the final siren.
The writing was on the wall when the Warriors conceded a goal-line dropout instead of getting a restart, thanks to a soaring Clifford bomb that Leeson Ah Mau only just cleaned up in goal with half the Newcastle squad swarming him to ground. Even worse, Clifford’s kick had bounced on its way over the line, with three New Zealand defenders there to collect it, and none of them calling for it. With the best chase of the afternoon so far, the Knights had taken control of the game again, and got rolling with good runs from Klemmer, Saifiti and Barnett.
Fitzgibbon continued this forward pack energy by twisting and spinning through a couple of tackles on the left edge, before Clifford secured a second straight dropout with his best grubber of the game so far. The Knights had 37 tackles in New Zealand’s half, compared to the Warriors’ 19 in their own half, and this was the best accumulation of field position yet, so it was crucial Newcastle score here to avoid conceding the momentum back again, especially once they received a penalty, right on the chalk, due to an offside error from RTS.
They got there on the first tackle, thanks to a late pass from Pearce, who ran right into the line on the left edge and opened up just enough space for Fitzgibbon to continue his splendid twist-and-spin from the previous set. Once again, the big second-rower slammed past Nikorima, ricocheting off Aitken and coming to ground beneath Otukolo. Like the Warriors, the Knights had scored a try that partly resolved their spottier efforts to cross over – especially for Fitzgibbon – although they remained two behind after Clifford missed the conversion kick.
They also failed to capitalise on their restart, and at first this looked less egregious than the Warriors’ dropout – just an Enari Tuala offside. Yet Fitzgibbon took out his team’s frustration with a clumsy tackle on Nikorima that saw him put on report and sent to the bin. Just when Fitzgibbon had rallied his men around him, and proved to the Knights that they could indeed self-correct, he left them with a twelve-man challenge, with five minutes on the clock.
Again, in any other game, the Warriors would probably have scored here – or Newcastle would have mounted a rousing comeback – but instead the match carried on in the same drab vein, with the exception of a pair of decent Pearce bombs that functioned as full stops at the end of this opening stanza. New Zealand continued to concede restarts towards the end of the tackle count, this time from Tevaga, and while the Warriors made some headway in the final minutes, including an Ah Mau linebreak, it all came to nothing with a third Curran error.
Walsh’s kickoff at the start of the second stanza was even more chaotic than Clifford’s, hanging in the wind before blowing back to the Warriors with Young offering little to no Newcastle chase to contest it. The Knights survived, though, as Mann got some much-needed joy on the last tackle, when he cleaned up a clutch Tevaga grubber in front of the posts. Pearce went high for his first bomb back, relying on the breeze to send it long, before RTS collected it on the bounce, and Newcastle dug in deep for their last defensive set without Fitzgibbon.
Clifford’s next kick was even more confounding, spiralling in the squalls building over Hunter and landing directly in front of Marcelo Montoya before careening back at a crazy angle and straight into Pearce’s chest. Montoya scrambled well to bring Pearce to ground, the rain intensified, and Walsh put all his energy behind his next kick, booting it straight into the wind, but still unable to make much distance, as the footy decelerated and dropped vertically above the Knights’ twenty-metre line. Still, the Warriors got the footy again off a Mann knock-on.
Play paused as Saifiti was taken off the park for an HIA – meanwhile, word had come back from the sheds that Sironen wouldn’t be returning – giving the Knights time to get their breath back as Josh King trotted onto the field. This next set was all grunt work right on the line, with Harris, Katoa and Ah Mau plunging into one Newcastle pack after another, and Katoa taking another run on the penultimate play before O’Sullivan consolidated with a great final kick.
The ball was perfectly weighted, and the take was just as good from Walsh, who would have twisted over to score if not for the most clinical Newcastle defence so far from Pearce. The wind had accelerated so much that any kick was a liability now, so this was a great effort from O’Sullivan and Walsh, while Pearce’s 40/20 effort was even more flamboyant – and doomed to fail. It did get the Knights some field position, but that came undone as well when Klemmer was pinged, and put on report, for throwing out an arm to just catch Walsh around the neck.
Kane Evans tried to steady the ship with a fast offload to Katoa midway through the next New Zealand set, and O’Sullivan made another stellar kick, this time from the twenty, giving Mann another moment of redemption when he caught it clean with a horde of Warriors chasing him down. All of a sudden, the game had consolidated, as Barnett made big post-contact metres, Clifford built on the breeze for the biggest bomb so far, and Walsh fell backwards and flipped it out at the ten metre line, where RTS was forced to concede an offside to contain it.
Clifford booted through the first and last penalty goal of the night to level the scoreline, and Young didn’t even have to jump to collect Walsh’s kickoff this time. Clifford’s next kick was even more dramatic, leaving his boot at the halfway line, and collecting a freak updraft to land on the full in goal, where the bounce was as high as a regulation chip. The Warriors had seven tackles up their sleeve, but only got through two, wasting their Captain’s Challenge to contest a clear knock on from RTS as he tried to navigate a surprise offload from Nikorima.
For a moment, this felt like it might be the next tryscoring sequence for the Knights, as Watson danced along the ruck and offloaded to King, and Pearce and Clifford showed some dynamic interplay a tackle later. Clifford opted for a low grubber on the last that came off RTS’ leg just as he shepherded it over the dead ball line, and Roger sent it upstairs, pointing out he didn’t have to rely on a team Challenge to contest this particular play. Yet the replay showed he hadn’t been pushed by Fitzgibbon, who’d only touched the footy after it came off RTS’ thigh.
This should have been a consolidation moment for the Knights, but instead Jones and Young had some dreadful miscommunication under RTS’ dropout. Neither player called for the footy as it careened towards the Knights’ left edge, while Jones actually had his boot over the sideline when he eventually collected it. This, in turn, should have been a consolidation moment for the Warriors – it was such a sudden reversal of possession – but O’Sullivan ended the next set with a pretty standard grubber to Mann, and Fonua-Blake knocked on a set after.
Both teams had failed so dramatically to capitalise here, on the cusp of the final quarter, that you had to wonder whether we were heading for golden point, so hard had tries been to come by this afternoon. Alternatively, the next try might well depend on luck – and the Warriors got lucky on their next carry, when Nikorima followed a splendid offload from Katoa to RTS with a kick that ricocheted off the left padding. Barnett cleaned it up, but the angle and speed were too difficult for him to get back in field, so New Zealand had another dropout.
We got a brief glimpse of Walsh’s energy when he took an offload from Fonua-Blake, jumped over Addin on the ground, and ploughed into the defence, only to lose the footy into Barnett. Saifiti put down an uncharacteristic cut-out pass from Watson four tackles later, and Nikorima got another dropout, sending the Steeden off the side of his boot out to the right edge, where Watson was forced to bump it into touch. The Warriors glimpsed a try when Nikorima fed it to Aitken with RTS unmarked on his outside, but it all came apart dramatically on the last.
The death knell was a poor pass from Harris that O’Sullivan was forced to collect on the bounce and then extemporise into a final grubber. Watson now saved his second try in two sets, but without conceding the dropout this time, sliding to ground and curving his body around the Steeden as the New Zealand defence piled on. Walsh slid even more dramatically as he tried to clean up Clifford’s next kick, sliding a boot over the line to grant the Knights a restart from twenty metres out, compounded by a set restart off a ruck error from Katoa.
After only 40% of possession in this second stanza, and only twelve tackles in the Warriors’ half, the Newcastle crowd were audible again in the stands, and the Knights finally glimpsed first-gear footy, with only ten minutes on the clock. Clifford’s boot did the job again, trapping Walsh in goal with a perfectly weighted grubber, Fitzgibbon tried to reprise his earlier hit-and-spin, Clifford and Pearce shifted it from left to right, Pearce fed it to Saifiti for a near-break, but Clifford took the footy too late from Pearce, who should have kicked himself.
Ben Murdoch-Masila cleaned it up easily, Saifiti slipped into Montoya for a high tackle, and the Warriors had a shot at absorbing all of Newcastle’s newfound energy and making it their own. They didn’t have much chance of kicking a field goal against the breeze, so the forwards needed to make big metres here – and they didn’t quite achieve it, forcing Katoa to kick from the right edge, where the footy ricocheted off the defence and rolled out for Jack Johns.
With seven minutes on the clock, we needed a big one-man effort – or a big one-man error – to prevent this game heading into golden point. Evans did better getting his men up field on the next set, making about ten post-contact metres, Katoa followed with one of the best offloads of the night to Tevaga, and the Warriors got a repeat set after Jones charged down Walsh’s kick. This was their moment, and Walsh risked a field goal, watching as the windiest conditions of the year spun it away from the left upright to grant Newcastle seven tackles.
Finally, four tackles into this set, Tuala broke through the line at the thirty and shifted it across to Watson, who was absolutely drilled before the crossbars by RTS. Even so, this was the speed Newcastle needed to propel them into their second and final try, as Brailey took a quick play-the-ball and commenced a rapid left sweep. Pearce offloaded out of an ankle tap from Aitken, and Fitzgibbon shifted it across to Jones to get under Katoa and score on the wing.
Clifford missed the conversion, but it hardly mattered, since the Knights survived the last five minutes of the game, thanks to a pair of errors from RTS, a crowding penalty from O’Sullivan and a sin bin for Murdoch-Masila with ninety seconds on the clock. For the dourest game of Round 15, this all ended in quite a rousing way for Newcastle, who will nevertheless be looking for a much bigger win margin when they take on the Cowboys in a fortnight’s time.