ROUND 20: Newcastle Knights v. Canberra Raiders (Suncorp Stadium, 1/8/21, 34-24)

Newcastle were coming off a few big defeats, and Canberra had won three in a row, when they met for a one-day delay at Suncorp on Sunday afternoon. Mitchell Pearce was still off the park, Jordan Rapana was Canberra custodian, and Bradman Best had an incredible comeback after returning from a seven-week stint on the sideline. Canberra had some superb passages of play, including a gutsy try for Josh Papalii to celebrate becoming fourth-most capped Raider, and two tries in the last two minutes, but even these last two crossovers felt like footnotes to the full stop of Ponga’s leadership, and his silky try at the sixty-fifth minute.

Jake Clifford took the kickoff, and the Knights rolled through a strong opening set, before putting in a strong defensive show as well, forcing Jack Wighton to make his first kick just over the halfway line. They got six again on their second carry, off a ruck error from Wighton, and while Rapana took Clifford’s kick cleanly, he copped a punishing tackle from Bradman Best, who made an immediate impact for his first match back since his ankle injury in Round 14.

Wighton’s next kick was a dangerous floating bomb, but Kalyn Ponga took it cleanly, and added some decent metres for the return, while Tyson Frizell took a hard charge to clear up space for a terrific one-man effort from Enari Tuala. Receiving the Steeden from Best on the left sideline, Tuala skipped over an ankle tap from Harley Smith-Shields, and could conceivably have sent it back to Best, who was running up on his inside, but instead opted to take it alone.

For a moment, it looked like Rapana must halt his momentum with a bone-crunching tackle, but Tuala pivoted to avoid most of the brunt of it, veering back inside, where he palmed off Rapana a few more times, and then smashed through Elliott Whitehead, using the ricochet to roll over the try line for the first four points. Clifford added the extras, the Knights got a restart on the restart, thanks to an offside from Josh Hodgson, and Best went from assister to scorer, collecting a short ball from Ponga, who dummied just long enough to draw in Sebastian Kris.

By the time Best bumped through the line, all he had to contend with was another ineffective low tackle from Smith-Shields, who’d now failed to prevent both tryscorers from building momentum – once from long range, and once from close range. Clifford had another easy conversion angle, putting the Knights at over a point per minute, while Frizell got the restart rolling with post-contact metres, and Sauaso Sue made it to the halfway line with some of his best footwork in weeks, so it was deflating when Rapana took a poor Clifford kick on the full.

The Raiders used the next couple of sets to consolidate, starting with Rapana, who took a Joe Tapine offload for the first Canberra linebreak. Ponga did better at cleaning him up than Rapana had done on Tuala, storming in for a huge fullback-on-fullback tackle that was compounded by Rapana slipping into him. The set came apart on the last play, when Hymel Hunt caught it on the full in goal for a twenty-metre tap, and Canberra challenged it, only for the replay to decisively show that Hunt had been behind the line, and never left the ground.

Not only had the Raiders failed their challenge, but they showed bad judgement to sent it upstairs in the first place – and yet they got the biggest let-off of the first half a few plays later, when Daniel Saifiti coughed up the footy and brother Jacob responded with a high hit. This ushered in a sudden and enormous accumulation of field position for the green machine, as Hudson Young simply stepped over a Sue tackle, and Frizell tried to regain some ground by slamming into Whitehead before he’d received the ball – the first desperate Newcastle play.

Josh Hodgson clamoured for a professional foul, but had to be content with a full set in the Knights’ ten – although it turned out to be more than a full set. The Raiders got six again when Hunt slammed the footy free from Whitehead, and got a touch of the ball himself, and then another restart when Rapana fell into a big hit from Jacob Saifiti, who inadvertently clipped him high. With Conor Watson conceding six again, Ponga had to rally the troops – and he did, coming in low and hard, blood streaming below his left eye, to rattle the footy free from CHN.

With this changeover, the momentum immediately shifted back in Newcastle’s direction, since the Raiders had done them a favour by allowing them to showcase their goal line defence. The Knights had proven they could keep out a couple of potential Canberra tries as easily as they’d scored the first two, so they absorbed all the energy of the Raiders’ attack on this next set, jumping upfield when Wighton took out his team’s frustration with a high shot.

Tuala now reprised his left side raid, bumping off Smith-Shields and then Kris as he headed back inside, and while he was wrapped up by Tapine, this flashback got the Knights in a try-scoring state of mind. The next play was Clifford’s kick, a bomb to the right edge, and Kurt Mann read it perfectly, leaping above Jarrod Croker and putting it down beneath Semi Valemei. Clifford’s conversion ricocheted off the post – and back in again, bringing the Knights to 18 unanswered points, after trailing 16-0 to Canberra during their encounter in Round 3.

Both teams went set for set for a few minutes, until the Knights tried to regain the rhythm by sending up an unusual challenge – claiming that Tom Starling had got a hand to a Clifford kick before it went out on the full. It seemed impossible to rule from the angle, but the Bunker denied it, leaving no more challenges, although Newcastle didn’t have time to be frustrated, since the Raiders took advantage of the lull to shape into their first try on the very next play.

It was a standard right sweep, but it was critical for Canberra that they showed the Knights – and showed themselves – that they could do the simple things correctly here. Rapana provided the assist, flicking it out to the wing, where Smith-Shields got some joy by popping down the clutch try that Rapana made his own speciality for so long. Dancing down the chalk, the young winger eluded Best at the death, slamming it down before tumbling into touch.

Croker had a difficult sideline angle, and was sitting equal third with Johnathan Thurston on 2222 points, so by booting it through he became outright third, although he still has a way to go to reach Hazem El Masri at 2418, let alone Cameron Smith at an astonishing 2786. The next part of the game was shaped by two massive hits from Papalii – the first inspired, the second mistimed – forcing Newcastle to bounce back big to come away with their next try.

Play paused when Papalii came in hard and fast on Jayden Brailey, who was taken from the field. This was a big loss for the Knights, since he’s sitting on the most tackles for a hooker this season – 834, significantly highly than Andrew McCullough at 801, Jake Turpin at 776, and Blayke Brailey and Reece Robson, only a hit apart at 666 and 665 apiece. Papalii tried to channel this contact by combining with Whitehead at the start of the next Newcastle set, but both men just found themselves put on report after Hunt stumbled off the park for an HIA.

Frizell now stepped into the spotlight, offloading back to Mann in the midst of a driving three-man hit, and then taking another strong run two plays later, when he forced Iosia Soliola to scramble with a legs tackle. Mann was inspired in a different way at the start of the next set, risking a bludger of a pass, a wide ball that bounced along the ten-metre line before Best finally took it. The pass was bad, but the risk was what Newcastle needed to break the flow of play, and grow more energetic over the next few sets, especially once Hunt passed his HIA.

In fact, Hunt provided the critical tackle here, putting the Papalii hit behind him by charging into Croker to rattle the footy free, lifting the Canberra captain right off the ground with the weight of his contact. The Knights got a restart off a ruck error from Soliola, and used these last two minutes before the break to consolidate into a terrific sequence that felt like a team try – not so much because it moved through that many Newcastle hands, but because it disposed of the Raiders’ defence so comprehensively, bookended by a pair of Starling misses.

Frizell got them going again by channelling his Mann offload with another bout of second-phase play – the time to Clifford, who broke through an ankle tap from Starling, and a low hit from Williams, somehow finding time to stand, and turn around so that he was directly facing his own goal line. He also had time to assess every possible passing option, finally settling on a  short ball to Ponga, who popped it on for Best. Cometh the hour cometh the man, and Best now broke out of a low tackle from Kris, got up again, and offloaded through Starling for Tuala.

Enari was always going to cross over from this angle, especially since he’d already linked up with Best on the left wing for the opening try of the night. This was Newcastle’s first four-points against the run of play (and it remained four after Clifford missed the conversion), and yet it felt more emphatic just before the break, especially given its symmetry with the opening Enari-Tuala combo. Still, the Raiders had sent them a warning during these last few minutes, and they’d come back strong after the sheds, quadrupling their score to put 24 on the board. 

The second stanza didn’t start well for Canberra, as Soliola was put on report for a dangerous tackle, and Starling infringed the ruck to concede six again, but they got lucky when Sue lost the footy a play later, without any Newcastle challenges left to contest it. The green machine now showed the Knights that they could score an equally spectacular team try, while Papalii continued the narrative that had started with his game-defining hits on Brailey and Hunt. Just as Hunt had bounced back on Croker, Papalii came back with his best play of the game now.

It started on the left side of the park, where he built field position and drew in Jacob Saifiti and David Klemmer, who had to struggle to hold him up. Soliola followed with another tough charge into the defence, and the Raiders swept back to the right, where CHN finally drew on some of his recent brilliance after a fairly quiet opening forty. Wresting order from chaos, he allowed Best and Klemmer to twist him in the tackle, but only so he could orchestrate just the right moment to hand the footy to Rapana, who offloaded it back in to Papalii, via Williams.

Papalii now proved why the Raiders have kept him on their roster so long, heading back in field only to pivot off the left boot, dodge away from Jacob Saifiti, leap over a Sue ankle tap, and get just far enough outside of Klemmer to reach out his right hand and slam the ball down. In one final twist, he copped a cork from Sue’s head, which made contact as he tumbled away from the play – a reverse high shot – but he was good to go again after Croker converted.

Yet the next period of the match was a sobering reminder that the Raiders simply weren’t able to build momentum as efficiently as the Knights. They had arguably the best try of the game, but lost control just as quickly, as Starling and Matthew Timoko conceded a pair of restarts, and Rapana was pinged for a second effort. Ash Klein warned both captains that they needed to “take the message” about messiness around the ruck, but where Brailey listened patiently, Whitehead delivered some backchat – not a good look for a team trying to congeal.

Meanwhile, Clifford’s penalty kick only put the Knights two points ahead, but they were now double Canberra again, at 24-12, which gave their lead a slightly more emphatic quality. The forwards built on it beautifully too, ferrying the footy fast and hard up the middle on the next set, before Best continued their drive by forcing a knock-on from Rapana beneath the high ball. This was the strongest Newcastle set for some time, and the big men just continued their push on the repeat, this time from close range, as Klemmer led them with two massive plays.

The first occurred on tackle one, beside the left posts, where big Klem dragged four defenders four metres after contact, and very nearly carried them over the line with him. The second occurred a play later, when Klemmer did the same beside the right posts, carrying another four players over the line, and appearing to get the footy down beneath them. The play was sent upstairs, where the camera angles first showed the tip of the Steeden hitting the turf, and then depicted a trajectory from Klemmer’s arm that made it seem hard to deny this try.

Yet the try was denied – an agonising moment for the ex-Bulldog, since this would have been his first try of the decade, his first in 80 games, his first since 2017 and his first for Newcastle. Yet where the Raiders had wilted in the wake of their best try, the Knights never faltered in the wake of one of their most disappointing almost-tries of the 2021 season. Klemmer spearheaded the defensive pack at the start of the next set, forcing Wighton to kick just over his twenty – or almost kick, since he flicked the footy forward, flinging it out into open space.

Whitehead made a valiant effort to clean up the play, reaching down for the Steeden before toeing it twice towards the halfway line, but the mistake had already been made. No surprise that Klemmer took the first hit-up, laying the platform for Ponga to drive it deep into the left corner, and pop it out to Tuala. Enari almost seemed to be mocking Wighton as he fumbled the footy, and then used the fumble to his advantage – an incentive to reach that little bit further forward to pivot perfectly off the left boot and elude Smith-Shields right at the death.

The Knights slumped ever so slightly following this terrific sequence, but a turning-point came soon after, when Rapana lost the footy, with no challenge to contest it, while giving Ponga a run for his money with the face injuries – cuts above and below his left eye, sustained during heavy contact with the back of Watson’s scalp. Newcastle now nabbed their last and arguably best try – and certainly their cleanest and fastest. Clifford dashed around to take the Steeden from the back of the scrum, and handed it straight on to Ponga, who scored from the twenty.

Ponga had made one of the errors on the back of Tuala’s try, but the ease and strength of this try was a leadership flex that no Canberra comeback could dilute. Receiving the footy, he didn’t even consider passing it on, dummying to get outside CHN, and only allowing Rapana to swing an arm at him before he tumbled over the sideline. This was a full stop on the game, a definitive statement of superiority from Newcastle, so it made sense that Ponga was now rested as Clifford booted through the conversion to bring them to their final tally of 34 points.

Still, the Raiders got two decent tries in the last ten minutes, and while they didn’t make much of an impact in this particular game, the green machine already felt as if they were looking ahead to next week’s clash against the Dragons. The first saw Wighton finally get into first-gear on the left edge, where he popped through a deft grubber that Whitehead chased down, scooped up, and shifted back into him. From there, Wighton broke into open space, pivoted away from Tuala, and lobbed a harbour bridge ball out for Hudson Young to square up Best.

With more time to prepare Best might have had this, but Young was the better man after such a fast passage of play, shimmying from boot to boot before clutching the footy into his chest and diving low in anticipation of bone-rattling contact that never really came. Instead, Best was an ineffective as Rapana had been on the line a few minutes before, while Croker easily added the extras to bring Canberra to 18.  They got more speed off a pair of errors from Mitch Barnett and Josh King, but they’d have to wait for the last thirty seconds to score again.

It was a minor twist that Canberra crossed over at all, since their game initially seemed to be over when Whitehead knocked on three and a half minutes out. Yet they regathered beautifully from King’s subsequent error, the last of the afternoon, getting through a thwarted Tapine offload, and a thwarted linebreak from Young, before Hodgson sent Emre Guler over with a short pass out dummy half – a good motivator for the game against St. George, just as Newcastle will be pumped for a big one against the Broncos on Thursday night.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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