ROUND 22: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Newcastle Knights (Moreton Daily Stadium, 15/8/21, 14-16)
Newcastle had jumped over Gold Coast to seventh when they met the Sharks for a high-stakes, down-to-the-minute game at Redcliffe on Sunday afternoon. The weather was hot, resulting in a slippery Steeden at key moments, most notably a ball drop from Braydon Trindall that turned out to be a momentum-changer. While the sea breeze was a relief, it was also a liability in itself, hanging the ball in the air and preventing the Sharkies from collecting two kickoffs – including the first, resulting in a Tuala try in the opening minute of the match.
Josh Hannay must have decided that Will Chambers’ saltiness over the last few weeks was working against his team, since Siosifa Talakai was make a stint in the centres, struggling at first with the role but gradually parlaying his second row skills into a unique backline fusion. On the other side of the Steeden, Newcastle had Hymel Hunt back from his HIA, and Bradman Best good to go after his collarbone issue, with Connor Watson celebrating his century at lock.
Jake Clifford went short with the kickoff, Connor Tracey was unable to secure it into a sea of Newcastle jerseys, and the Knights scored three plays and thirty seconds later, off their first left sweep of the game, which ended with a superb bullet ball from Mitchell Pearce to put Enari Tuala across in the corner. This was fast-forward footy, and one of the best assists of the round – so sharp and fast that Sione Katoa didn’t even get a hand to Tuala as he plunged over the chalk. Clifford’s second boot after the kickoff was the conversion from the sideline.
This was the fastest try in the last three seasons, as the Knights effectively restarted the whole game on the restart, but with a bonus six in the bank. Cronulla survived, and got a restart of their own off a ruck error from Jayden Brailey, but play fragmented over the last few tackles, when Talakai showed his inexperience in the centres, botching a pass from the left sideline that missed both halves and forced Tracey to contend with the kick after almost dropping it.
After missing the first kick, Tracey barely executed this one, skidding it crossfield where Jesse Ramien collected it and shifted it on to Briton Nikora, who was quickly contained by Conor Watson. Conversely, the Knights were back in the Cronulla red zone by tackle two, sweeping from side to side before Clifford followed in Tracey’s footsteps, or bootsteps, with a pretty limp grubber right on the line that ricocheted off the Sharks defence without being played at.
Clifford tried to correct a few tackles later, reading an Aaron Woods pass perfectly as he slammed into Braydon Trindall to rock the footy free, before clambering over the big halfback to gather it into his chest. Still, the call was that Clifford had applied pressure just as Trindall was passing, rather than forcing a loose carry per se – a bit of a let-off for Cronulla as they packed the scrum in the middle of the park. They accelerated into their first really threatening period of attack, securing six again within the Newcastle ten midway through the tackle count.
Tracey got away with a blatant knock-on three plays later, and Katoa surrendered to avoid an obstruction on the fifth, so the Sharks had to condense this rapid accumulation of field position into Trindall’s bomb to the left, where Kurt Mann leaped above the chase to take it on the full. Cronulla did well to keep Newcastle in their own end, despite a fifteen-metre jump out of dummy half from Brailey, and bounced back with good metres on their next carry, tempting Tyson Frizell into high contact on Will Kennedy to reprise their attack from the ten.
The Knights were now defending the fifth of the six last sets, and they only lasted two tackles, as Trindall provided some much-needed leadership from the halves, starting with a short ball to Nikora. Briton waited until the very last moment to offload back to his no. 7, dragging in as many edge defenders as possible, and clearing up space so that when Trindall’s subsequent wide ball found Ramien, the ex-Knight only had to contend with a poorly timed chase from Tuala and a last-ditch hit from Clifford that he was always going to bust through on the line.
Trindall capped it off with a deft conversion, reading the breeze as he booted it through the uprights, in what felt like a consolidation moment for Cronulla at this early stage in the game. With the weight of all those repeat sets they had 62% of possession, so it was a sharp turnaround when Clifford read the wind even better, repeating the opening kickoff with a short ball that the Sharkies lost the second time around too. The Knights couldn’t have asked for a more emphatic shift, and had a shot at absorbing Cronulla’s recent rhythm as their own.
Yet Clifford’s next kick was less impressive, a mid-range chip that was already too deep and too low without the wind at its back, setting up Ronaldo Mulitalo to graner his men seven tackles to play with, by taking it clean in goal. This ushered in a fairly volatile period of the game, as Talakai made his second error in the centres by knocking on a gettable Tracey ball in the following set, and Braden Hamlin-Uele mirrored Clifford’s earlier hit on Trindall by appearing to force a knock-on from Watson, only to be called out for marginally early contact.
This was a more dramatic result, and an unluckier result, since Trindall got the penalty within kicking distance of the crossbar, while Clifford had almost invited this “high” hit by ducking into the tackle to avoid a hospital pass from Pearce. It was a particularly significant moment in what would turn out to be a two-point game, as Clifford booted through the first of three penalty kicks, and the Knights capitalised even further by bringing on David Klemmer for free.
Despite the importance of this moment, or perhaps because of it, both teams settled into a set-for-set rhythm as the second quarter got going, gradually elasticising and searching for the next play that would break the game open. Trindall attempted a 40/20, but Ponga took it on the full, so it ended up being Tracey who turned the tide, banging into Pearce just as he was receiving a Tuala offload on play one, and ushering in Cronulla’s next bout of position, starting with a rollicking Jack Williams run that really tested Pearce and Frizell’s edge defence.
The Sharks got six again on the last, a metre out from the Newcastle line, and consolidated into their most dynamic set of the game so far. Pearce had to contend with a second big charge on the left, this time from Talakai, before Woodsy slipped into EPL mode, trapping a low pass with his right boot and scooping it up without a knock-on. Back on the right side, Nikora and Trindall nearly repeated their tryscoring combo, except that this time Trindall took the offload from Nikora, and spun over the line as Klemmer and Barnett just got beneath him.
Once again, Cronulla’s short-range attack came down to the kick, but this kick paid better dividends – or Mann’s worst moment paid dividends. Tracey finished with a standard bomb to the corner, where Mann didn’t have much in the way of a kick chase to contend with as he leaped up to put both hands on the Steeden. Yet he dropped it cold, as Talakai proved his worth in the centres by flicking it out to Mulitalo, who tucked it under his arm, crossed untouched in the corner, and even curved around to get Trindall a slightly better kicking angle.
Clifford tried to make it a trio of Cronulla errors under the high ball with his shortest kickoff for the restart, but Mulitalo was still on a high – literally – from the try, as he leaped up to collect it on the full. Tracey ended with another chip, and while Ponga took it clean, the impact of the kick chase spilled over into the second tackle, when Hunt lost the footy, and sent it upstairs. At first, this looked like a desperation challenge, since Hunt had coughed it up so fast into the combined hit of Woods, Tracey and Talakai that it felt destined to be a loose carry.
That’s just how it looked for the majority of the replay too, since only in the dying moments of the tackle did Woodsy’s strip manifest itself. What initially looked like one of the most spurious challenges of the year turned out to be one of the most judicious, reversing the whole rhythm of the game in an instant. Kennedy copped some enormous aerial contact from Clifford as he took Pearce’s next bomb on the full, and the Newcastle chase showed they could have a spillover effect too, dishevelling Talakai into a cold drop when he took the footy.
The Knights got a scrum at the ten, as news came down from the sheds that Watson had passed his HIA, and the Sharks were pinged for breaking too quickly, while Matt Cecchin warned that a second break would be an automatic sin bin. Ponga tried to dance around Ramien on the left edge, before play shifted to two clutches on the right – Frizell flinging it out the back to Watson, and Watson responding with a wide ball that missed Mann, and headed for the side, where Hunt somehow managed to clean it up as Talakai slammed onto him.
Ponga tried to pivot play back to the left, and clear up space for Best, but he was downed in backplay after stopping in Nikora’s trajectory. There wasn’t all that much force in it, but Nikora was still put on report, and the Knights had a fresh set, steeling themselves to at least rival Cronulla’s relentless goal line attack, only for Best to put it down a tackle later, as Pearce became the next man to rise from the turf clutching his shoulder after a big hit from Ramien.
The Knights had got their last burst of field position off Hunt’s challenge, and they got more now off a bad Cronulla challenge. In fact, this was the best ever confirmation of Greg Alexander’s theory about questionable challenges coming primarily from wingers and frontrowers, since we had Andrew Fifita sending it upstairs on behalf of Sione Katoa, who wanted to claim that Klemmer had interfered with the play-the-ball. Instead, the replay clearly showed big Klem retreating from the ruck as Katoa planted the Steeden onto his boot.
This should have been a turning-point for the Knights, but they didn’t even get to their next set, as Frizell lost the footy into a monster tackle from Williams and a good follow-up effort from Brailey. He was barking for a strip as he rose to his feet, but Cronulla were already halfway up the field by the time he inserted himself back into the defensive line. From here, the Knights devolved until the break, as Sauaso Sue infringed the ruck, Klemmer was put on report, and Barnett was pinged for a second effort – although the Sharks didn’t score either.
The Knights didn’t put down four quite as quickly after the break, but they still scored early, thanks to an especially dominant passage from Ponga, who put his body on the line twice in the opening minute. First, he collected a short ball from Watson at speed, in the middle of the park, defenders all around him, with Toby Rudolf around his waist. Then he leaped up to collect the next high ball, as Ramien slammed in for aerial contact just as his right boot hit the turf.
Ponga parlayed those two big plays into some restless footwork up the middle, clearing up space for hard charges from Klem and Sue, who laid a platform in turn for Watson to elude a couple of defenders and drift out to the right wing. Yet Talakai decisively shut down this momentum, slamming the full force of his body onto the ex-Rooster, and effectively fragmenting the rest of this set, which ended with Trindall taking a standard Pearce grubber.
Nevertheless, Best broke into space down the left edge a set later for the most propulsive play since the sheds. He was only just brought to ground by Ramien at the ten, but still made a good couple of metres with the former Knight trailing along behind him, swinging off his jersey. Best played the ball just as quickly to Barnett, who fed it back inside for Pearce to bring it right to the line and execute what would have been a cut-out assist for Clifford if the footy hadn’t grazed Watson, but the ball stayed with Newcastle with Toby Rudolf deemed offside.
Pearce took over organisational duties from Ponga on the next set, feeding a short ball for Frizell to take a big charge at the posts, and then anchoring a sweep that ended with a spectacular sequel to the Best-Ramien contest down the left edge. Receiving the footy five metres out, Best welcomed Ramien’s low tackle, folding it back into the sweep itself, as he stood in the contact just long enough for Tuala to find space on the wing, before flicking back a one-handed, no-look offload for his flyer to plunge over the chalk for another four points.
Even then, this was no sure thing for Tuala, who pulled off the best grounding of the game, lifting the tip of his boot just as he slid towards the sideline, and crooking his left knee at just the right time so that he could get the footy down before he headed into touch. It looked close enough in real time for the refs to send it upstairs as no try, only for a perfect Bunker angle to show that Tuala had actually kept a full five centimetres between boot and chalk.
It was the best try of the game, and the last, although the Sharks very nearly went one better a few sets later. This period actually started with some prodigious play from Ponga, who took a Trindall kick on the bounce midway between the try line and dead ball line, eluded Hamlin-Uele, and shaped to run back around to the wing, only to trick Billy Magoulias by heading back inside instead, and returning over the try line as a result. This convoluted the game into an especially volatile sequence that very nearly ended with Cronulla scoring their toughest try.
The next few tackles were divided between two sequences – Ponga wincing after rising from the Williams hit that eventually stopped him in his tracks, and Frizell executing a slow peel on Mulitalo out on the wing. For a moment, the game fractured as attention shifted between Ponga getting attention from the trainer, and a Frizell-Mulitalo mini-fracas, before Nikora regathered and condensed all this free-floating adrenalin into the hardest run of the evening.
Colliding onto a short ball from Trindall at speed, Nikora got past Barnett, wrong-stepped Ponga and gathered the footy under his right arm, while placing a huge fend on Watson with his left, hanging in mid-space with so much speed and strength behind him that he would probably have landed Steeden-first, and secured the try, if Barnett hadn’t slammed in for a second time to roll him away from the chalk and force the ball free. This was the best trysaver of the whole game, easily worth Barnett being penalised and put on report for high contact.
Barnett was still frustrated with the decision, muttering to himself even after Trindall had booted through the penalty kick, but his save was so good it was worth the two points as well, since Nikora would have almost certainly scored if he’d only had to contend with Watson here. Moreover, this would have been such a tough try, that it would have likely produced a cascade of Cronulla points, or at least cemented their momentum. As it was, these would be their last points, while their flow soon came to an end with their first error since the break.
It came on the cusp of the final quarter, when Trindall made an unforced error, losing the Steeden cold, midway between receiving it from Brailey and shaping to kick. Things decelerated quickly from here, as the Sharks conceded a dropout, and Luke Metcalf found himself offside within the ten, setting up Clifford to boot through his second penalty kick as the sky turned a glorious purple over Redcliffe. We were now all locked up at 14-14, although the Knights had subliminally reclaimed the game, as the Sharkies struggled to play catch-up.
They got their last big surge with a sublime Tracey linebreak that segued seamlessly into an even more scintillating run from Metcalf, straight down the middle, where Barnett smashed in to pull of the cleanest steal of the season at speed – and probably a second trysaver after his effort on Nikora, since Metcalf had the pace and position to go all the way here. The Knights absorbed all that speed and sent it back down the other end of the park, where Daniel Saifiti channelled it into an absolute barnstorming charge from close range three tackles later.
This prompted the most desperate goal line defence from Cronulla in turn, as Magoulias and Brailey came in on top, crumpling Saifiti beneath Tolman. Play paused for some time to check whether the big prop could remain on the field, and by the time he returned to the attacking line, Newcastle didn’t have much in the tank for the last two tackles. Klemmer’s run was pretty uninspired, a carbon copy of Saifiti’s charge, and while Ponga tried to goose-step the Cronulla left edge into submission, they piled on again to prevent Frizell doing much with it.
Play paused again as Saifiti was finally taken from the park, and the double stoppage seemed to take the wind out of both teams, producing a surprisingly quiet end to the game given how much was on the line for both clubs. The last major event was a pair of penalties from Magoulias – a second effort and an early tackle – that set up Clifford for a thirty-five metre kick with the wind at his back to get his men the competition points and a place in the eight.
All in all, then, this was a pretty good night for Newcastle, despite a few spotty patches when Cronulla took the upper hand. They’ll want a more consistent effort to ensure a really decimating game against the Dogs, and the same goes for the Sharks against the Tigers. And yet neither of those results are as important as the wellbeing of Andrew Fifita, who was off five minutes into the second stanza with what turned out to be a fractured larynx. As he lies in an induced coma, everyone in the NRL is wishing him their very best for a speedy recovery.
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