ROUND 24: Newcastle Knights v. Gold Coast Titans (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 26/8/21, 15-14)

Both Newcastle and Gold Coast were competing for a spot in the eight when they met at Sunshine Coast on Thursday night. The Titans had won 42-16 back in Round 5, but this was a much closer and tightly contested affair, coming down to a Mitchell Pearce field goal in the final fifteen seconds. That made it one of the more suspenseful matches of Round 24 – too dynamic and psychological to ever quite feel like a war of attrition, or descend to a regular arm-wrestle, with both sides invoking, containing and defusing the opposition’s best plays.  

This was a particularly critical win for the Knights, who had 11 wins and 11 losses in 2021, but four straight wins now – just the kind of momentum they needed in the buildup to finals footy. A victory here would guarantee their finals berth for the second year running, while a decisive win would make up for a very tight one over the Bulldogs last week. Kalyn Ponga had been pretty quiet for long stretches of that game, but he perked up here, assisting the Pearce try that arguably broke the deadlock, while also saving a critical dropout just after the break.

Nevertheless, Pearce and Ponga weren’t quite on song – at least not consistently – and never quite made the most of the leadership opportunities that they glimpsed. Put that down, in part, to the defensive convinction of Gold Coast, who’d showcased their best defence of the season during the first forty against Melbourne last week, and parlayed some of that dexterity into tonight’s match as well. They brought David Fifita on late, and yet his impact was even better for the delay, while Jayden Campbell continues to refine his poise with every fixture.

Jake Clifford took the kickoff, Corey Thompson the catch, and Jarrod Wallace the first run – straight into a monster hit from Sauaso Sue. Clifford spearheaded a pack to drive Proctor back into the ten on tackle two, and the Titans didn’t even break their own twenty until tackle four, thanks to some early post-contact metres from Sam McIntyre, who eventually brought them all the way to the forty. Jamal Fogarty needed a deep kick to reset the balance of field position, but he sent it awkwardly off the side of the boot, and Ponga collected it easily on the volley.

The Knights were over the halfway line midway through this first set, and Pearce’s first kick was pitch-perfect, coming down just above the try line, so it was a big early letoff for Gold Coast when neither Clifford not Bradman Best were able to contain it. Best went high, but couldn’t contend with the chase, while Clifford was unable to clean it up when it dribbled in goal. Fogarty’s kick was much better at the end of the Titans’ second set – and Kurt Mann came up with the catch that Best was looking for, leaping to take it clean and sharp in the air.

Wallace elasticised the attack with a deft offload midway through the next set, and Beau Fermor tried his luck on the left. Initially, he didn’t look like he had much of a shot – like he was treading water until other options presented themselves – so it was a real twist when he dummied left, broke through Mann, and took advantage of a limp low tackle from Hymel Hunt to shoot it out to Phillip Sami for an untouched try on the win. The Titans had come full circle from their opening struggle for field position, even if Fogarty’s sideline attempt hit the post.

Thompson commenced the restart with a decisive run, as if determined to put the Titans’ poor opening set well and truly behind them, and sure enough Tino Faasuamaleuai took them to the halfway line, and got his men the first penalty off a marginal crusher tackle from Jayden Brailey. Big Tino came off the park, and Moeki Fotuaika left the bench for the free interchange, running the ball immediately to bring Gold Coast to the cusp of the Knights’ red zone. Enari Tuala infringed the ruck a moment later, ushering in the first real goal line attack.

The Titans shifted left for the first few tackles, where Campbell tried to pop over out of dummy half, only to find himself confronted with Newcastle’s best scramble so far. Yet Gold Coast pivoted pretty well in response, forcing a dropout on the other wing, where Ponga was compelled to clean up a perfectly weighted Fogarty grubber in goal. After struggling to secure early field position, the visitors had heaps of it now, as Campbell followed his halfback with another grubber, this time on the second play, and with an even better result for his team.

Pearce was forced to ground it in goal, but Sue got done for an escorts, and was lucky not to clock up a professional foul, since he came in low and late as the young fullback was chasing down his kick. With ten metres left to the try line, we probably weren’t in penalty try territory here, although it was hard to believe Campbell wouldn’t have grounded his own kick, given the spring off the left boot and sudden acceleration that preceded this grubber. In any case, Gold Coast took the two, as Fogarty popped it through to get them six unanswered points.

They rolled up the park on the next set, but couldn’t reprise their run to the goal line, and with Ponga taking Fogarty’s bomb on the full, this terrific period of Gold Coast field position was over. The Knights now had to accelerate and consolidate immediately to make up for five defensive sets, and they started with a massive three-man effort to prevent any hint of a kick return from Campbell. All of a sudden, we were back to that opening set, as the red and blue wall prevented the Titans from getting out of their own end, until they expanded on play four.

This time the critical run came from Fogarty, who channelled McIntyre by dancing over a low tackle from Connor Watson and adding about twenty metres, while Pearce reprised his opening kick as well, sending it to the left edge, and just above the try line, only for Campbell to take it before Clifford and Best even had a chance to miss it. Fogarty responded with what initially looked like his best kick of the night – the first really spiralling bomb, a soaring 65 metre effort that might have bounced dead, but still gave Gold Coast time to reset their line.

That didn’t stop Sue popping a neat offload out to Frizell midway through the set, or Ponga from dummying and finding space up the wing, and yet the Titans got a big let-off now, as Kalyn mistimed the pass out to Hunt, turning a possible Newcastle try into a Gold Coast scrum. This was the first incomplete set of the night, so the Titans had to capitalise off it, and Fotuaika got them rolling by upstaging Sue’s second phase play with a very late offload to Campbell, before Fogarty sent it end over end for a second time, and the chase kept Ponga under wraps.

All in all, then, this set felt like a consolidation period for the Titans, especially since Proctor delivered some barnstorming defence to force Clifford to take the next kick in his own end. Patrick Herbert glimpsed space up the right edge midway through the next set, only for big Tino to go from milking a penalty to conceding one. Arriving at the chase too early, he didn’t time his contact well, hitting Ponga on the boots, while he was still in the air, and giving Newcastle a much-needed burst of field position, which was compounded by an early restart.

It came off a Fotuiaka error, and while it really only turned a six tackle set into a seven tackle set, it gave their attack an air of consolidation, galvanising them into their best left edge attack so far. No surprise, then, that Ponga stepped up now, receiving the footy from Brailey just outside the ten, and then showcasing his mercurial footwork with a dummy out to the left and a pivot back in field that saw Proctor, Campbell and Tino cascade onto the ground, leaving only Fogarty as last line of defence, with a last-ditch effort to push him over the dead ball line.

By this stage, though, Ponga was always going to get the Steeden down, just as Clifford was always going to add the extras from right in front. Ponga had now become the sixth player to score 400 points for the Knights, while this last surge made it feel like Newcastle had the upper hand now, even though they’d only levelled the score. Jacob Saifiti captured the newfound flow of his whole team with some tough post-contact metres up the middle on the restart, while Mitch Barnett manhandled Tyrone Peachey when the Titans got the ball back.

Barnett’s effort ensured that the visitors were still in their own ten by play three. They were bunched on their own line even more than in the first set, and they elasticised accordingly in the back three tackles here, culminating with another terrific kick from Fogarty – as good and long as his 65 metre spiral, but with a better trajectory, to force the Knights to work it back from their own line. This was tantamount to a momentum shift, as Peachey made up for Barnett’s hit by exploring the left sideline on the next set, and Fogarty booted another beauty.

He was just as good on the chase, too, preventing Ponga even glimpsing a kick return, and leading by example, as the Titans continued to pile on the defensive pressure, even if they couldn’t stop Clifford popping the offload back to Watson. Still, Gold Coast were sitting at 100% possession, and that consistency was steadying them in the face of this war of attrition, which was only enhanced by a series of weak kicks that put the pressure on the forwards, as David Fifita (finally) got ready to come off the bench, with a little under nine minutes to go.

The Knights got their next big chance with a restart in Gold Coast territory, off a Jaimin Jolliffe error, and Mann got on the front foot immediately, bursting up the right sideline where he very nearly split the difference between Kelly and Sami entirely to break through and score. This was great speed from Newcastle, but big Tino wasn’t having any of it, getting his revenge for the Ponga penalty by ensuring that the halfback’s next pass to Pearce didn’t have even the slightest chance of an assist, with a huge tackle that steamrolled Mitchell ten metres out.

Fotuaika also played a role, and Erin Clark was waiting nearby to come in as a third if needed, but there was no doubt this tackle was driven by Tino – it felt personal, and injected a new animosity into the match. Fogarty did well to boot it to the twenty off a poor pass at the end of the next set, but the Knights were still high on this last bout of field position, so they looked promising when Peachey was pinged for dangerous contact on Hunt two tackles in. Josh King’s charge was good, so it was agonising when he lost the footy the moment he went to ground.

You could have argued that Tino got a hand to the ball, but ten seconds elapsed, and the Knights packed the scrum, while Gold Coast spread it left immediately, where Sami repeated his earlier run up the wing, and found Pearce waiting for him this time. Nevertheless, he’d built enough speed to galvanise the rest of the set, as Jolliffe stabilised up the middle, and Fogarty tried to parlay Sami’s run into a right edge play, only to come up with his worst pass of the game – a wide ball that would have been an assist if it didn’t bounce past Thompson.

This was Gold Coast’s first mistake of the night, and their first incomplete set, although they didn’t have to wait long for Newcastle to return the favour, as Hunt became the next Knight to lose the Steeden on the ground. Again, they might have had a case for a Captain’s Challenge here, since there was a chance Beau Fermor had overcrowded the play, but once more they bided their time, and steeled themselves for another left edge attack from Gold Coast, this time at close range, before Fogarty got some joy with a far better pivot out to the right wing.

Big Tino arguably laid the foundation by showing the footy for an age on the left – a play that seemed to remind his men how much they could do with strength and patience. Fogarty took the cue with a beautifully timed ball to Fifita, who only just gathered it in his right hand, secured it in a second, and mirrored Pearce’s try by ploughing through a cascade of defenders – Best, Tuala, Clifford – to effectively slam the Steeden down untouched as they all tumbled over the sideline. Fogarty added the extras, and like that the Titans were six ahead once more.

Seeing Fifita cross over was a rousing way to head to the sheds, especially since he was now equal second for most tries in a Gold Coast season, alongside Anthony Don in 2018 and Kevin Gordon in 2013, one behind David Mead and James Roberts in 2011 and 2015 respectively. This felt like a consolidation try, and yet it would turn out to be the last that Gold Coast scored, since they only clocked two in the back half as Newcastle clawed their way to a one point win.

King took the first run back to put his pre-Fifita error behind him, and Barnett made some good metres up the middle, before Pearce bombed halfway up the park, and Campbell caught it on the spin with the poise and calm that has quickly become his signature stance. The Knights only had three play-the-balls in Gold Coast’s twenty, so they had to amp up the position this forty, especially since the Titans didn’t show any signs of slowing down, with big Tino taking a tough charge to set them off, and Fifita following with a near-break up the right.

Watson and Clifford set up Pearce for the next kick, and while Campbell lost it in the air, this gave him a chance to redouble his cool as he took it the second time in the face of Barnett and Best. Clark started a right edge sweep three tackles later, and Herbert glimpsed a hole that only just closed up, while Ponga came up with a critical clutch effort at the back of a sublime Fogarty grubber, reaching out an arm to slam the Steeden back in the field of play.

This could so easily have ushered in a dropout, and another accumulation of Gold Coast position, so Ponga’s save was one of the key turning-points of the game, especially since Kelly conceded a fresh set with dangerous contact a moment later. The Knights were starting to glimpse the repeat sets they needed to get back on the board, only for Ponga to follow his superb save with a poorly timed pass out to the right edge – a bouncer that tumbled far too low, and too far back, for Hunt to clean up, let alone parlay into a genuine tryscoring platform.

Charged up by this sudden shift in Ponga’s form, the Titans elasticised early in the next set, spreading it wide on play two, and again on play three, only to overtake themselves when Tino put it down – and get it back just as quickly when Thompson dragged Best towards the sideline, forcing the offload at the precise moment Fogarty got in place to collect it. The Titans didn’t waste any time returning to their previous elastic play, shifting it left and then recentring for a Fogarty grubber that Clifford missed in the ten, leaving it up to Ponga in goal.

This time the Titans weren’t going to let Kalyn plant the footy back in the field of play, and so the subsequent dropout felt like a self-correction, a cancellation of Ponga’s clutch effort from a few minutes before. The Knights got some breathing-space when King was taken off the park for an HIA, and some fresh blood when Jirah Momoisea came on for the free interchange, and the brief rest charged Watson into summoning a huge pack on the next tackle, but Newcastle were unable to contain a right side run from Herbert with try written all over it.

Instead, Herbert hovered between kicking and offloading to Thompson on the wing, settling for a weird flick onto the ground that felt more like a cold drop, paving the way for the biggest Newcastle turnaround of the game – a ruck error from Thompson, in place of the try he should have scored, and then a sublime 40/20 from Pearce, who took control of the attack with this inspired play. Finally, the Knights had some goal line attack, only to break down just as fast on the left wing, where Best dealt with a low ball from Pearce with a forward pass to Hunt.

To be fair, this was Pearce’s error as much as Best’s – or at least Best would probably have sent it flat if not for the pressure of reaching forward to contend with the awkwardness of this low pass. Just as Ponga’s save had given way to a Gold Coast dropout after all, Pearce’s potentially game-changing kick had its sequel in one of his least inspired passes of the game. On the other side of the Steeden, the Titans proved how well they could extemporise now, as Fifita got on the outside of Best for the second time since his try, and came close to touch.

Instead of allowing himself to hit the chalk, however, he tapped it back inside to Thompson at the last second – and while this didn’t produce points, it was a tribute to the Titans’ ability to stay staunch under pressure, and not a bad way to follow Pearce’s drab ball. Peachey’s next kick ricocheted off Brodie Jones and back to Pearce, as Jacob Saifiti, fresh on the field, rallied the troops with a trademark charge up the middle, while the crowd grew more raucous – aware, like the players, that the next team to score might well come away with the victory.

Meanwhile, Peachey delivered a Ponga-like play at the end of the next Newcastle set, taking the high ball a metre in goal, and dancing around the converging chase to reach out an arm and plant the footy back in field. Everything now depended on the momentum, on each team’s ability to invoke and contain the best plays from the opposition, which meant this was less an arm wrestle than a psychological war. Gold Coast got the next advantage when Mann fumbled the play-the-ball, and had 25/28 completions compared to the hosts at only 18/26.

By this stage the Knights were seventh on the live ladder with 24 points, and the Titans eighth at 22, two points above the Sharks and Canberra at 20 apiece, although you wouldn’t have known it from the next set, which saw Campbell step into the right side role, Tino continue to make big metres after contact (and enter the red zone), and Peachey drift across the defence for a beautiful grubber that Best had no choice but to pop into touch with Wallace at his back.

Clifford sailed the dropout 55 metres, Fogarty took it clean, and Fotuaika lost it on play one – yet another of the sudden changes in possession that felt so precarious as we headed into the final quarter. Fotuaika compounded his error by conceding a restart, and just like that the Knights were inside the ten with three tackles to play with. Finally, Ponga nailed the pass out to Hunt, although this just turned out to be the pivot for Newcastle to head back in field, where Ponga ran it deep into the line, before sending Pearce across with a superb short assist.

Pearce might have copped a small crusher as he put it down, but it was worth it for the spectacle of this consolidation try. It was motivating for Gold Coast to see Fifita cross over on the brink of half time, but nothing beats a good Ponga-Pearce combo, especially since Pearce had to break through a one-on-one from big Tino to get the footy down. Clifford added the extras, the Knights were six ahead, and they just had to hang on now with seventeen to go.

That said, they’d successfully recaptured the flow of the game after a particularly mercurial half hour. Both Ponga and Pearce had frustrated leadership moments during this second stanza – Ponga with the dropout save and then the dropout concession, Pearce with the 40/20 that led to his poor pass up the left edge – while Tino had been utterly enormous. Seeing them dispose of Tino so clinically, on the back of a good right side play, was massively motivating, even if Ponga leaked another error almost immediately, very late in the restart.

True to the spirit of this particular game, however, Kelly made a mistake just as quickly – and the Titans sent the footage upstairs to contest the knock-on. The replay showed that he had been facing his own goal line when he lost possession, but that he’d still dragged it forward, leaving Gold Coast without any more challenges for the last quarter hour of the match. The Knights packed the scrum as the blood moon rose over Kawana Waters, muscling their way into a staunch defensive line as the Titans made sure Kelly’s mistake didn’t do much damage.

Even so, Mann came close to the try line under the high ball, and the visitors had to work it back from their try line, getting a flashback to the opening minutes of the game, except that Fifita was now on the park, making a good fifteen metres by trampling over Tuala up the right. By the time that Peachey sent it off the left boot, the Titans hadn’t done that poorly, while Newcastle didn’t make it to the red zone on their next carry, allowing Campbell to play the first tackle at his ten, instead of his goal line, as Gold Coast steadily worked their way back.

Campbell was just as good on tackle four, dashing up the middle out of dummy half to set up Fogarty for another end-over-end effort. With a little over ten minutes to go, and both teams on twelve, this couldn’t get any more suspenseful, as Tuala and Herbert collided in the air under the next high ball, emblems for two teams that were both searching for what would surely be the match-winning try – if they could find a try at all. As it turned out, the final ten minutes would only yield a penalty kick apiece, and a last-second one-pointer from Pearce.

The first penalty came at the end of the next Newcastle set, off a Wallace-Pearce tackle. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was late, so Clifford lined up the tee, and added the two, before Jarrod seemed to have completely processed what went down. The Knights were now at 26 competition points, while Cronulla had displaced Gold Coast at eighth on the live ladder, and used their next set to consolidate and steel themselves, ending with a wobbly Pearce bomb.

By this stage, the Titans had to get flamboyant – and they delivered on play two of their subsequent set, when Fogarty sent a risky cut-out ball for Thompson to break into space up the right edge and only come to ground at the twenty under a desperate Best tackle, before Herbert scooped it up and completed this superb trajectory with a mad dash to the ten. Fogarty bookended it all with a beautiful chip that Mann soared up to collect on the full, only to ricochet it into touch under the pressure of both the Newcastle and Gold Coast chasers.  

After putting his men two ahead at the other end of the park, Clifford conceded two more here, with a sloppy arm to Campbell’s face that set up Fogarty for a penalty kick in front. With five minutes on the clock, we were locked up at 14-14, as both teams set in for a field goal finish. Both Herbert and Clifford went for two-point kicks, and both missed, before Pearce nailed the win with a one-pointer fifteen seconds out from the siren – a rousing sequel to his Ponga linkup, and a good motivator for what should be an easy last game against the Broncos.

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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