ROUND 19: Sydney Roosters v. Newcastle Knights (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 23/7/21, 28-8)

There was a high wind roiling over Sunshine Coast Stadium when the Roosters hosted Newcastle on Friday evening, causing havoc with the kicks and forcing both backlines to contend with a series of dangerous floating bombs, several of which ended up dictating the shape of the game. James Tedesco was back from Origin, and had a barnstorming evening in attack, running rings around Kalyn Ponga,  making the most of Mitchell Pearce’s absence, and rallying the Roosters as Billy Smith suffered a season-ending foot injury. Matt Ikuvalu joined him with a syndesmosis that requires surgery, although he may well be back by finals football.

Daniel Saifiti took the first hit-up, and Jacob the fourth, before Matt Ikuvalu started making up for his issues under the high ball last week with a clean take of Jake Clifford’s first kick. Ponga did the same under Drew Hutchison’s kick, and avoided any big plays on his first carry, popping it across for Dom Young to take the tackle. Clifford’s first kick had been a bit shallow, and his next was too deep, rolling over the dead ball line to grant Sydney City a set of seven.

They got a restart a few plays later, off a ruck error from Mitch Barnett, settling into the first sustained field position of the game. Hutchison chipped to the right corner, and Daniel Tupou secured it, shifting it back inside for his five-eighth to get boot to ball for a second shot – this time a deft grubber from the twenty directly into open space. Ponga now had his first strong play, curving around to collect the Steeden and make a few metres to avoid a try or dropout.

Hutchison’s next boot to the left wasn’t as good, riding the breeze to sail over the sideline, giving Newcastle their first augmented set. Clifford ended with the highest bomb of the night, and again Ikuvalu was safe beneath it, almost reaching a foot back over the try line for the collect. Three plays later, the Knights got another boon when Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was pinged for a knock-on during a tackle with Tyson Frizell. He insisted on sending it upstairs, but the replay clearly showed a loose carry, so the Chooks lost their challenge eight minutes in.

This was the moment for Newcastle to consolidate, and Frizell plunged straight out of his tackle with big JWH and across to the right edge, where he collected a Ponga pass and took the footy right to the chalk. It was agonising, then, when Clifford knocked on under the brunt of a combined tackle from Sam Verrills and Isaac Liu, especially since Tedesco showed hints of his fastest footwork so far a few plays later. Ponga was safe under the high ball, but for the second time he palmed it off to Young on the kick return – this time with a pretty poor pass.

The ball was too low for Young to collect it, resulting in the first unforced Newcastle error as Joey Manu stormed in to prevent any members of the backline recovering the football. The Chooks got another restart a moment later, within the Knights’ twenty, off a Conor Watson ruck infringement, as the visitors steeled themselves for the first sustained goal line defence of the evening. They swept left on the last, and ended with a cut-out pass from Tedesco to Tupou that was immediately called forward – a massive let-off for Newcastle at this moment.

Young took a bullocking run on the next tackle, clutching the Steeden under his arm so there wasn’t even the faintest chance of a knock-on, and Watson had the next carry, meaning the Knights started this set with the last two players to concede errors. This seemed to galvanise them into their first restart, off a Sam Walker error, and then their first try of the night, thanks to a pair of big hard runs from the Saifiti brothers, which bookended a deft assist from Ponga.

The unofficial assist came from Daniel Saifiti, who took the footy deep into the line, putting pressure on Walker and delivering a rapid play-the-ball for Ponga’s actual assist. After this frontal assault on the line, Ponga skipped horizontally along the ten, and then sent Jacob Saifiti into open space. Teddy overread the play, and by the time he got there not even the combined force of Verrills, Walker and Sitili Tupouniua was enough to prevent the four points, which became six when Clifford booted the first conversion of the night through the uprights.

For a moment it looked like Newcastle had made it a double on the restart, on the back of their best single set of the night so far – and one of Watson’s best runs of the year. In one superb trajectory, he pivoted away from Liu, skidded past Radley, jumped over an ankle tap from JWH and fended off Butcher, to feed it out to Crossland, who responded with a catch-and-pass to Kurt Mann. After so much dexterity, the Knights needed speed – and the ex-Dragon provided it, burning up the right before sending the footy back in to Ponga at the ten.

What happened next was initially called a tryscoring sequence, as the Newcastle fullback turned into a mere pivot for the footy to ricochet off on its way back to the right wing, where Hymel Hunt achieved a clean grounding. In real time, it looked as if only Teddy had knocked on the footy when he flung himself into his opposing custodian, but the replay showed that Ponga had knocked on as well, under the intensity of Tedesco’s tackle, so the try was denied. 

Even so, the Knights got the next points on the board – a penalty kick, after Verrills was pinged for being offside within the ten. Yet this would be the last time that Newcastle got points on the board, on the cusp of the second quarter, as the Chooks now mounted a comeback that saw them clock up 28 unanswered points. It didn’t happen immediately, though, since the Knights got the next penalty when Angus Crichton tackled Ponga in the midst of his first really characteristic take under the high ball – a daring leap to collect a dangerous Hutchison floater.

The Roosters leaked another penalty, and Teddy got a formal warning when Verrills followed Walker with another offside within the ten. Newcastle shifted it from one side of the field to the other, and Jacob Saifiti tried to reprise his big run on the left edge, but it all came apart on the last, when Jayden Brailey followed Clifford with the second overlong kick of the night. Meanwhile, the Chooks started to consolidate by replicating the Knights’ right-side break, thanks to a deft play from Tupouniua, who broke through the line and took it up to the ten.

They elasticised further on the next few plays, spreading it left, where Crichton drove it into the left corner, before Walker chipped it back infield. Newcastle survived, but turned it over almost immediately with an Enari Tuala error, while a Clifford ruck error forced them to contend with the most sustained attacking position for either team so far. They’d already had a big let-off on the left edge, and they got another one on the right wing now, where Ikuvalu bumped off Young and had ample space to reach out his arm and get the Steeden to ground.

Instead, he mistimed the pivot away from Young, slipping on the dewy turf, landing just shy of the line, and flipping the footy forward before he had a chance of a clutchy putdown in the face of a last-ditch Newcastle pack. The Roosters had now botched tries on both sides of the park, and yet they were the stronger team, so they needed to spend the next couple of sets regathering – unless one of their men came up with a big individual effort to reset the game. They’d trailed 12-0 against the Cows, so they could be confident if just managed to be patient.

It only took them a few sets to put down the perfect try at this point in time, a try that corrected and resolved their three biggest tryscoring opportunities of the evening – Tupou on the left, Ikuvalu on the right, and Tupouniua’s linebreak up the right. The sequence began two tackles into a Newcastle set, when Manu stripped the Steeden from Young as Tupouniua broke from the tackle. Walker responded with a sharp right sweep, and Teddy held the line to make room for Tupouniua to pivot away from Young, and bump through Clifford to score.

The Chooks had now made good on Ikuvalu’s aborted right side play and Teddy’s aborted Tupou assist, while also drawing on Tupouniua’s linebreak. The wind defied Walker’s conversion, and play paused on the restart, when Ikuvalu came down hard on his left ankle while trying to feed the footy back in field to Teddy in the face of a tough tackle from Young. Billy Smith had already left the park, so this was a pretty dour sight for the home crowd, though to their credit it didn’t dent the Roosters’ restart, since they now scored back-to-back.

In effect, they got a second restart once play resumed, since Frizell was pinged for an obstruction, and then conceded six again a few tackles later. Manu now stepped up, showcasing the vision and leadership he’s brought to fullback during the Origin period by bookending a pair of big plays. First, he offloaded to Radley, who got it across to Tupouniua, providing a platform for the Roosters to consolidate up the right. Then, he swivelled back to the wing, where he concluded a passage of third-phase play that started with a Radley offload.

This was the clutchiest sequence so far – an offload right on the ground from Hutchison, followed by a Hail Mary pass from Radley, who twisted around and lobbed it blind back out to the wing, sensing rather than seeing that one of his backliners would be in place to collect it. He was right – Manu read the play perfectly, collecting it on the full and crossing over untouched – while the backline continued to deliver when Teddy booted through the sideline conversion a moment later. On the brink of half time, Sydney City had finally taken the lead.

The kickoff hung in the air for an age before Teddy caught it for the first carry back, reminding Newcastle they were now booting it into the breeze. Walker did well with his first kick, while play paused on the next set when Tupouniua hit the deck after careening into Josh King’s upper body. He passed the preliminary HIA, and the set resumed without the Roosters losing any speed. They got to a pretty decent kick, bunched the Knights down their end with some gutsy defence, and regathered again with a set restart after Tupounoia finally left the field.

Hutchison delivered one of his more unusual kicks at the end of the next set, booting it almost horizontally across field, and depending on the breeze to carry it towards Tupou. He nearly stood a chance of collecting it too, but the bounce was too low and oblique, swerving over the sideline to let the Knights off the hook. The next kick sequence was even more bizarre, as Clifford’s bomb blew back and landed almost exactly where he’d booted it, forcing the Chooks to wait for the bounce, and leaving space for Mitch Barnett to dash in and deftly tap it back.

It falconed off Watson, and arrived at Sausao Sue, who kicked it backwards with a martial arts inspired move that momentarily built some Newcastle momentum up the right edge, only for Teddy to dig in the studs, spin around Ponga, and burst back in field to elude a dropout. King tried to rally the troops with a barnstorming charge into Butcher next time the hosts had ball in hand, but if anything it galvanised the Roosters into a rapid left edge sweep that ended with Crichton offloading to Tupou right on the line, before they sent it out to the other wing.

Yet this motivated some of the most scrambling defence from Newcastle so far, culminating with a Young-Butcher ankle tap. The Roosters had energy to burn after this aborted set, and Manu expended some of it with a high shot on Hunt, but he made up for it by leaping up a full metre above Tuala and Young to catch Clifford’s left edge chip with the tips of his fingers. The Knights had enjoyed a few promising plays on this set, especially a Brailey-Watson combo that recalled Saifiti’s try, so it was a big push for the Chooks that they recovered so smoothly.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Knights demonstrated a newfound determination during these last minutes when the game genuinely hung in the balance. Jacob Saifiti took the hardest run of the night, bumping off three defenders, getting up from the ground, and making ten more metres – and even a further metre after he made bone-rattling contact with Liu. Ponga had his biggest challenge under the high ball a set later, falling onto his back to collect a Hutchison bomb as a gust of wind wafted the footy back towards the dead ball line.

Yet that Newcastle energy just made it all the more deflating when the Roosters scored their easiest try a set later. You could say that Brailey tried to continue Saifiti and Ponga’s efforts but got too enthusiastic, stripping the footy from Tupou and getting the Chooks in position for a try not even they seemed to be expecting. Getting on the outside of Frizell, Teddy suddenly found himself creating a three-on-two almost by accident, and made good on his frustrated assist in the first half with a pitch-perfect cut-out pass to send Tupou over the line.

Tedesco didn’t manage the conversion, so the Knights still only had a six-point margin to contend with as the Roosters got stuck into their restart. Ponga fell on his back at the end of another Hutchison kick, and somersaulted backwards this time as well, almost knocking on in the process. A set later, Manu seemed to secure the next bout of field position with a beautiful grubber down the left edge, returning to the park after Clifford bumped him into touch and applying sufficient pressure to force Ponga to send it dead – or so it first appeared.

Instead, the replay showed that Manu had got a hand to it first, giving the Knights ond last big let-off before the Chooks got stuck into their final trio of tries. They didn’t even have to defend a full set here, since Clifford’s harbour bridge ball on the fourth tackle was way off, sailing over the sideline before Young had a chance at getting a hand to it. Conversely, Teddy finally burst into space up the middle, fending off Frizell, dancing over him as he fell, and skipping over an ankle tap to link up with his halfback at the ten metre mark.

Walker wasted no time executing a quick play-the-ball, and the Chooks now swept right as clinically as Teddy had made his way up the middle. Radley flicked the footy on to Fletcher Baker, who bobbled it, careened into a Brailey tackle, twisted around and offloaded back for Radley to feed it on to Tupounoia for a heads-up assist – literally. Staring Young straight in the eyes, Sitili seemed to be squaring him up to see whether he could trample over him, only to lob a no-look pass out to Lachlan Lam, who took it on the wing and smashed over for four.

Young was completely turned inside out by the play, skidding across the park as if caught up in the slipstream of the sweep. This was the best Roosters try so far – it took the most coordination, but looked the easiest – so it didn’t much matter that Teddy swayed the Steeden across the front of the posts. They were ten ahead, with fourteen minutes left on the clock – and more importantly they were on a tryscoring roll, in control of the match’s rhythm.

Teddy broke into space again on the restart and it looked even easier this time, if that were possible. All he had to contend with now were the fingertips of Daniel Saifiti, as the Newcastle defence melted like butter, allowing him to reach the red zone once again, where he shifted it out to Baker. Crichton took a close-range charge at the line, and Verrills followed with a kick from dummy half that Ponga scooped up with one hand, only to slip onto the dead ball line.

He went short with the dropout, Manu secured it, and the Roosters looked set to score back-to-back tries here, so it seemed like it might be a big let-off – even a momentum-changer – when JWH had to pull himself right back to clear the way for a Verrills-Walker ball. Even then the footy grazed the front of his chest, and the Knights had a changeover, but they didn’t do much with their set, while a touch on a Walker pass gave the Chooks an augmented bout of position next time they were down Newcastle’s end anyway – and this time they delivered.  

JWH got some joy by laying the foundation with a tough carry into the right edge, where he exchanged a few slaps with Barnett as the rest of the Roosters got into place. Teddy followed in his wake, digging deep into the line and popping the footy across to Tupouniua, as Manu ran the decoy, meaning that Brailey only had time to ricochet off his quarry in an attempted ankle tap, while Sitili had too much speed for Clifford’s final tackle to pose a real challenge.

Teddy led his men in a tenpin bowling-styled try celebration, so he felt right that he added the extras from close range as well, while Hutchison almost smashed over at the end of the restart. The Knights survived, and managed to contain a Tupou-Manu offload on the next Sydney City set, which ended with another rough moment for JWH – a sinuous pass from Radley that took him entirely by surprise. Reaching out his right hand, he almost took it, but it ended up defying him, and so Newcastle had the scrum feed with five minutes on the clock.

They didn’t waste any time accelerating up the park, but by the later tackles the Roosters had managed to slow down the play-the-ball, and ended up total neutralising them, forcing Mann to fumble an awkward pass deep in the right corner. By contrast, the Chooks only accelerated on their next set, building towards a left side raid on the third tackle – Hutchison to Crichton, who utterly diposed of Mann, burned up the chalk, and lobbed the footy inside to his fullback.

Tedesco now added the icing to a barnstorming game, cementing his position at the top of tonight’s Hard-Earned Index by smashing into a low tackle from Brailey and popping out a one-handed offload to assist Crichton, who was able to stroll over untouched. Only as he was cruising across did Crichton allow the set to decelerate – and this vision of calm in the midst of crushing skill should galvanise the Chooks as they prepare for a big one against Parra next week, while the Knights will need to dig deep when they take on a resurgent Raiders outfit.   

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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