The Knights doubled Canterbury 32-16 when they met for the opening clash of the year but it was a very different affair when they reunited at Cbus on Saturday night, even if Newcastle came away with a second win. By this stage, the Bulldogs only had two victories under their belt, and had only scored the first try in two matches as well, while the Knights were looking for four in a row for the first time since 2019, and had to contend without Jacob Saifiti and Tyson Frizell missing from the forward pack.
For the most part they were good, rather than great, winning long stretches in a fairly predictable way, but failing to make the Pearce-Ponga combo really shine. On the other side of the Steeden, the Dogs bounced back with two tries in the final quarter to make it a six point game, one of which – a Lewis-Okunbor linkup – was their best of the year, and one of the best tries off a kick in recent times. With Josh Jackson off late with an HIA, they couldn’t have picked a better week to get Luke Thompson back from his three-game suspension too.
Pearce took the kickoff and Saifiti the first run, before the Dogs surged in to stop Hymel Hunt making any metres – and then prevented David Klemmer making any significant headway after contact. Pearce bookended the set by booting it deep into the right corner, just over the Canterbury forty, but Nick Meaney held his ground, withstanding the oncoming chase to take it on the full. Lachlan Lewis, by contrast, had to kick at speed, but still managed to send it long and hard for Kalyn Ponga to clean up at the other end of the park.
Jake Clifford took the next kick, and Meaney squared it up just as effectively, although this time a pack of Knights meant he couldn’t make any metres. Will Hopoate looked to elasticise the play a tackle later, but couldn’t get the offload away, and Ryan James did the same a moment later, before Ponga took another kick, and Newcastle got rolling once again. This was pretty consistent from both sides – no errors, no penalties – a war of attrition that already suggested a close finish.
Pearce’s second kick was the highest so far, but it didn’t faze Meaney, who came up with his third identical collect. Finally, on play two, Jayden Okunbor executed an offload, risky enough to inject some more adrenalin into the Canterbury side, until Lewis came up with an even more towering bomb than Pearce. Ponga was up for it, but from there the game started to grow more volatile, as Corey Waddell knocked on a Hunt ball, on play one, a second after James was called offside.
Josh Jackson made the same error at the other end of the park, as the Knights went from end-to-end footy to a full set in the opposition twenty. Four tackles in, it all came together, with a clinical right sweep that ended with a brief Pearce fumble, and then a beautiful parabola ball for Hunt to bump off Corey Allan and reach out the Steeden to plant it down through a follow-up effort from Aaron Schoupp. In real time it looked pretty good, but the replay confirmed that Hunt had put boot to sideline just before the tip of the footy hit the ground.
If Hunt had scored here, Pearce’s initial fumble would have just made it better by reminding us that this was a key consolidation moment. Instead, the brief bobble probably cost Hunt the time he needed to score. At least the Knights didn’t have to wait until the end of the next Canterbury set to get the ball back, since James lost it a couple of tackles later while trying to bolster his post-metre tally. By contrast, Enari Tuala got his men rolling with a good ten metres after contact, bringing the Knights into the twenty by tackle three.
They had a chance to redeem themselves here if they played it cool – and Pearce delivered just the right play with a stealth grubber on the fourth. The other Mitch read it beautifully, storming towards the dead ball line, and never giving up on the footy as he flicked it behind him, at the death, for Saifiti to slam down without a Bulldog in sight. This may have been Barnett’s best moment of the season – a prelude to Haumole Olaka’atu’s sublime assist against the Cowboys a week later.
Clifford was always going to convert from this angle, lifting the Knights to 6-0, even if the Dogs did a pretty good job of containing them on the restart, forcing Pearce to kick from deeper in Newcastle territory than any set so far. Meanwhile, Okunbor started the next tackle count by slipping into Brailey, who conceded six again, as the hosts finally got some augmented field position of their own, despite Pearce, Hunt and Kurt Mann’s efforts to drag Schoupp over the left sideline on tackle three.
Unfortunately, Lewis delivered one of his worst kicks of the season on the last, clearing up space for Pearce to make his way back over halfway on the first play, before Waddell swung an arm into Ponga’s head to bring the Knights back to the Canterbury twenty. They got a further penalty in the red zone when Waddell reprised his dangerous tackle, this time on Barnett, who made up for the contact with a big charge on the left that laid the platform for a near-break from Connor Watson on the other side of the posts.
As if determined not to let Barnett’s efforts go begging, Pearce tried to repeat that golden grubber, but the footy ricocheted off the blue and white defence, who eventually came up with it, and made their way to the Newcastle twenty by tackle four, before Thompson knocked on a high pass. The Knights had the scrum, and needed to use this set as a consolidator after seeing Pearce’s boot go awry – especially since Jackson and Lewis made a big statement of intent by coming in to dispose of Brodie Jones on play one.
Lewis repeated the effort three plays later, hitting Ponga low and hard enough to rattle the footy free, albeit backwards to Pearce, who managed to save the day. Even so, the Knights didn’t do much with the end of this set, while Thompson made up for his error with some really stellar post-contact metres early in the count, clearing up space for a massive Adam Elliott charge that tempted a high shot from Watson. James was at the ten a play later, and Thompson required three Knights to hold him up five metres out from the chalk.
This was the most serious threat to Newcastle so far, as big man after big man surged in from close range, until Lewis bounced back from a fairly frenetic opening quarter with one of his trademark zen-like kicks – the kind of crossfield chip that seems to slow down time around it. Between the big boppers and this studied calm, the Dogs seemed to be finding their groove, and sure enough they got another set when Clifford was called offside while trying to prevent Okunbor taking Lewis’ kick on the full.
Yet the blue and white were lacklustre right when they should have consolidated, allowing Clifford to immediately make up for his error by cleaning up a loose ball on the last, right in front of the posts. As the second quarter got rolling, Pearce hoisted it high, Meaney caught it on the full, and we were back to the pattern of the opening sets – a pattern Schoupp tried to break by launching himself into the defence for some splendid post-contact metres early in the next Bulldogs count, before Ponga got to his knee to take a Lewis floater.
No player makes kneeling look quite so effortless as Ponga, so this small gesture felt like a riposte to Schoupp, and to the whole last Canterbury set. The Knights got lucky a play later, when they garnered their toughest high shot penalty since the rules were revised. It came to Sausao Sue, who tumbled to ground so quickly off an ankle tap that Jackson tumbled over him in turn, getting a hand to his face making “high” contact even though both men were barely twenty centimetres off the turf.
With this kind of fortune the visitors had to score here, and they had a good stint in the twenty, sweeping it almost the entire breadth of the field before Jones consolidated with a good hard run into the defence. That combination of speed and strength galvanised Clifford into repeating Pearce’s grubber, except that this time the trajectory was less clutchy, allowing Tuala to put it down without any tapback from the dead ball line – his seventh try in his last four matches, coinciding with his newfound confidence outside Bradman Best.
Clifford couldn’t cap it off with a sideline conversion, but the Knights still had ten unanswered points – not a bad situation against the team with the worst red zone completion in the league. Meanwhile, Barnett and Pearce took mammoth runs into the defence midway through the restart, as if channelling the steadying calm with with Jones set up Clifford, forcing the Dogs to work it back from their own twenty when they got the footy back again, until Lewis conceded the set was now a positional exercise and booted it inside his own forty.
That said, Clifford didn’t make much more headway on the next set, and totally mistimed a 40/20 as well, recalling Adam Reynolds’ low one off the boot last night as he sent it over the sideline on the full. This was (or could be) a critical turning-point for the Dogs, who got a restart inside the twenty, early in the count, off a Barnett error, and got rolling with a strong Elliott charge up the left edge. Yet the Knights contained it, paving the way for arguably their best defensive set of the game, right down to the final kick from Lewis.
Initially, this looked like a sublime answer to the Newcastle halves’ grubber assists – same part of the park, same subliminal bounce, and same general trajectory. Without Ponga in place, Allan would certainly have grounded it, but Kalyn’s defence was utterly mercurial here, as he swung around the footy, took a full survey of the situation, and came back in just as the ex-Rabbitoh was reaching out his hands, forcing a knock-on at the very death, while adding a silky run across the ruck two tackles into the next set for good measure.
As quickly as the Bulldogs had glimpsed some momentum, the Knights had regained it, building further on some subliminal footwork from Mann, who eluded Schoupp and then dodged past a couple of other tacklers on his way from the right wing back in field. A play-the-ball later, Pearce reprised his golden grubber, which was becoming a litmus test for both sides – the effortless play that they had to repeat or reinvent to remain in control of the game.
This time it led to a dropout, as Meaney did well to take it clean in goal, but was unable to withstand the subsequent Newcastle chase, while Waddell came up with his third penalty of the night, and his second report, for ripping off Ponga’s headgear in backplay. Klemmer delivered a big double pump midway through the set, pivoting the play out to the left before it headed back inside again for Brailey to take a charge at the posts on tackle four. Yet Clifford botched the kick, drifting for so long that he booted it straight into the defence.
Both Okunbor and Hoppa looked keen for offloads on the next set, so it was a bit drab when it all ended with Ponga collecting another bomb. With five minutes to go until the sheds, the first stanza was winding down, both for the Bulldogs, as Elliott infringed the ruck and Hoppa was pinged for an early tackle, and for the Knights, who might have got a successful Captain’s Challenge to prove Hopoate’s error, but didn’t capitalise when Clifford failed to boot the two. A Hunt linebreak ended up going nowhere, and so they headed off the park still at 10-0.
The second stanza started dramatically, as the kickoff ricocheted directly off Kyle Flanagan’s boot, rolling forward so fast that he was unable to recover it before the Knights scooped it up for a full set within the twenty, most of it inside the ten. This fast start couldn’t have been more different to the end-for-end rhythm that started the game, although the Knights ultimately seemed as confounded by the sudden burst of field position as the Dogs, and only built to an awkward Mann grubber that Hunt couldn’t tap back from the right sideline.
In fact, defending this dramatic set seemed to steel the Dogs, as Jackson steadied them with a good strong run up the middle, and Lewis hoisted it high. With some good defence on the next set, they might have delivered immediately off this compressed opening sequence, but the Knights still (slightly) held the upper hand, thanks to a dash and near-break from Clifford, along with some good Pearce footwork out on the left. Nevertheless, Newcastle had unleashed a lot of adrenalin with that early set, and hadn’t decisively claimed it as their own.
Hoppa was the next to tap into it, nearly glimpsing a linebreak up the left, before Lewis finally found an answer to Pearce’s grubber. Shaping to kick in the same part of the field (exactly the same part of the field, now the teams had switched ends) he looked set to invoke and repeat the grubber, only to opt for a more eccentric trajectory in its place – a mini-chip back inside that Meaney read perfectly, chasing it to ground on the bounce before Flanno added the extras. Just like that, the Dogs had come away the victors of Newcastle’s opening surge.
Jackson didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart, and while Corey Horsburgh’s offload might have been loose on the second, Hoppa still managed to contain it. If there was a Newcastle hand in between, the refs didn’t notice it, but the ex-Raiders’ ball handling came back to haunt him on play four, when he opted for more second phase, only to pop it back to Barnett this time around. Just when the Dogs seemed to have survived the next set, with a charge down of Clifford’s kick, Waddell’s woes worsened with an accidental offside.
Lewis’ offside on play one might not have added that much tactical advantage for Newcastle, but it did create a psychological advantage by reiterating the sense that this was a sudden consolidation of field position. Sue was held up just over the line midway through the set, and history repeated itself twice – first when Clifford’s kick on the left was charged down, and then when the Knights got the ball back. Still, the Dogs held up Clifford on the right and Barnett on the left, digging deep to defend yet another set on their line.
If Pearce’s kick had made it through the defence the Knights would have had a pretty good shot of scoring here, or at least securing a dropout, so it was huge when Lewis reached out a boot to stop it, producing a rapid shift in rhythm that Sue tried to contain with a clumsy leg pull. After a sequence of Canterbury charge downs and ricochets, this was the most artful – an appropriate end to the best defence of the night from the blue and white, which Elliott immediately translated into defence with barnstorming metres through Pearce and Hunt.
Nevertheless, the Dogs were in the same position as the Knights just after the break – they’d unleashed more adrenalin but hadn’t quite owned it. As a result, Newcastle now did what Canterbury had done back then – they absorbed it as their own, as Watson came up with a terrific return on the kick and took advantage of a fragmented opposition line to set up a mammoth run from Hunt, who accelerated to the Bulldogs’ forty, paused and eluded a couple of defenders to rack up fifteen more.
The Knights were back in the ten by tackle three, as the hosts braced themselves for more goal line defence, but they got a letoff when Saifiti knocked on a play later, after just returning to the park in place of Sue. This was only the third handling error of the match, and it was a big one, although the Bulldogs didn’t do much with the subsequent set, initially using it to calm themselves, and then gradually enterprising out on the right edge, only for another Waddell error – this time an exhausted inability to get up and properly play the footy.
The contrast couldn’t have been stronger with Klemmer, who turned to face his own try line and barged three defenders seven metres forward on the first play of the next set. Yet the Dogs were also starting to tire, and despite a wide ball from Ponga out to the wing, and a Pearce kick in the direction of Mann, Allan came up with the footy. Newcastle were lucky, then, to get an escort from Schoupp, since with 25 tackles in the last ten in the opposition half (to the Dogs’ five), they were starting to rely on sheer exhaustion to nail the enemy.
Jirah Momoisea had just come onto the park, and ended the first tackle with his first charge in first grade, coming to ground a metre out from the line before the visitors got six again – and this turned out to be the tipping-point in their massive accumulation of close-range postion since the break. After a couple of aborted kicking opportunities on the left edge, Clifford ended the next sweep with such a massive dummy and drift out to the wing that he genuinely appeared to be on the verge of getting ball to boot.
That just made it more deceptive – he seemed to be surprising himself – when he slid back inside in the most drastic pivot of the night, eluding taps from Flanagan, Waddell and finally Jackson before planting the Steeden down in a good enough position to add the conversion a second later. After a challenging third quarter, the Knights had resumed their ten point lead, and were buoyed up by a second wind as player after player yeanred for a break on the restart, forcing the Dogs to bring out their staunchest defence to contain them.
Despite this energy, however, the blue and white would mount a comeback of sorts over the final quarter, which they won 10-6 to cement this as one of the most hard-won games in Newcastle’s late season in turn. Before that happened, the Knights got one last try, thanks to a superb sequence that started a third of the way up the park, when Hunt offloaded for Brailey to pop it across to Watson, who burst through a Hopoate tackle, broke the line, turned 360 degrees and made a silky one-handed offload to Clifford as Hoppa finally brought him down.
It was all seamless enough for Clifford to simply continue Connor’s rhythm, carving his way up the middle before popping it across for Best to dance over a last-ditch ankle tap from Meaney and curve around behind the posts. Clifford was always going to convert from this angle, while Best’s putdown had the potential to galvanise the Knights into a closing torrent of points. He’d made 22 post-contact metres in the first hour but he’d been pretty quiet in attack, so seeing him come alive felt like a critical late consolidation point.
That sense of potential continued through the restart, as Newcastle got six again on the last tackle – they were at 5/2 for these calls – and Brailey almost broke through the line. If Momoisea hadn’t flicked it forward they might just have scored here, but instead the Bulldogs contained this burst of energy and put down two tries of their own before the final siren rang out – an even more impressive effort in that Jackson, so crucial to their pushes up the middle, had been taken from the park for an HIA in the immediate aftermath of Best’s try.
Thompson dragged three defenders seven metres on the very next step, stepping into his captain’s boots in the forward pack, and while the next few tackles were a bit directionless, and Lewis didn’t make the 40/20, this whole set had an air of survival about it. They did pretty well to contain Newcastle on the following set too, keeping them within their own forty until Saifiti coughed up the footy in the face of a big Bailey Biondi-Odo tackle late in the count.
Since the break, the Dogs had only enjoyed two tackles in the opposition’s twenty, compared to a whopping 27 (at least for this contest) from Newcastle, so they had to make the most of it when Barnett was called offside two plays out of the scrum – and then again when Pearce made the same error two plays after that. Still stauch, Thompson was at the goal line by tackle two, while Seumanufagai repeated his drive further in towards the posts, suggesting the next try might just come from the forward pack.
Sure enough, James was the man to break the dam, receiving the footy out of dummy half and just smashing through Momoisea beside the left post to set up Flanno for an easy kick. The ex-Titan also took the first hit-up of the restart, as if to parlay his try straight back into the blue and white momentum, while Thompson rose to the challenge, popping a very late offload out the back to Biondi-Odo a tackle later. Add a strong run from Elliott up the left edge and the Dogs had made 65 metres up the park, and looked good for a try then and there.
Lewis sent it high at the end, but there was no kick chase coming, leaving Ponga clear for a fairly clean (if contorted) catch, followed by a much-needed Newcastle restart when Flanagan infringed the ruck. Like clockwork, though, Meaney mirrored Ponga with a good take under a considerably less challenging Clifford bomb in the next corner, as the Dogs got stuck in to resume the rhythm of that stellar restart, commencing with a mad dash and offload from Hoppa to Okunbor up the right that saw both backliners only just elude the sideline.
Lewis’ next bomb was even higher, giving Ponga an opportunity to showcase the low catches that always seem so effortless in his hands. This time he had to slide onto his back and careen beneath the crossbar to take the Steeden comfortably, for what looked briefly like a dropout opportunity but turned into an even bigger kick chase fail from Canterbury, who came in too hard and to late, as if to make up for the lacklustre effort of the previous set. The result was a second effort penalty from James and a messy crusher tackle from Thompson.
With five minutes on the clock, this felt like it just might be the end of Canterbury’s night, especially given the mammoth effort Thommo had made since Jackson left the park. The next potential error, a lost ball from Saifiti midway through the next set, might be the only shot they received, so they wisely sent it upstairs for a successful Captain’s Challenge, even if the footage showed a pretty close situation that could have conceivably gone either way.
In any case, the Dogs found their flow again on the next set, sweeping it early in the count and getting six again in the twenty off a ruck infringement from Chris Randall. Yet once again things fragmented, as Thompson got away with a very questionable play-the-ball, James tried and failed to reprise his smash through the line, this time beside the other post, and Lewis reached out his right hand to take a wide ball on the left but lost it forward instead. Surely, with seven tackles, and only three and a half minutes, the Knights could stop any more tries.
Nevertheless, the Dogs had one more burst in them, and it came off another unlucky call for the Knights – a supposed tackle in the air from Clifford on Meaney. In reality, Clifford had only had eyes for the ball, while Meaney had used him (specifically, his head) as a landing pad when they both came to ground. In fact, so fortuitous was this call that the Bulldogs seemed to sense something special was preordained, settling into their most elastic footy of the night until Lewis shanked it all the way from left to right, where Okunbor took it on the full.
The kick itself was remarkable enough, sailing all the way from the left wing to the very corner of the right goal area, but the catch and putdown was sublime. Surging ahead and outside of Tuala, Okunbor caught the footy on the fly in both hands and managed to get it down with one hand, at high speed, all in one dexterous motion, an instant before rolling into touch. Not only had Okunbor upstaged the Barnett-Saifiti combo earlier in the game, but he’d provided the best Bulldogs try of the year, and one of the clutchiest tries off a kick in recent NRL history.
Flanagan missed the kick, so with 29 seconds on the clock the Bulldogs had to come up with a converted try here to bring the game to golden point. To their credit, the Knights stayed strong over the restart, and came away with the chocolates, but they must have got a shock from this late surge. They’ll be looking to use next week’s game against Gold Coast as a consolidation moment, a chance for a more consistent tryscoring effort, while the Dogs will be buoyed by this performance as they prepare to take on a resurgent Manly outfit.