There’s been a real synergy between Brisbane and Newcastle over the last decade. Both teams have reached historic lows and both teams have started long journeys out from those depths – the Knights just experienced this ebb five years before it hit the Broncos. That synergy felt especially pregnant on Saturday afternoon’s game at Suncorp, where the two sides momentarily seemed to swap places. Newcastle were in the top eight and Brisbane the bottom four, but by the end it felt like we were back to the struggling Knights of the mid-10s.
That’s not to say that Newcastle played as poorly as they did then, but that the game totally belonged to Brisbane, who got their seventh win of the season, after only three last year – the kind of incremental improvement that typified the Knights in the years before Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga. It was a rousing finale for Xavier Coates and Anthony Milford in their last games at the club – and, of course, for Alex Glenn, who finished thirteen years and 285 fixtures as fourth most-capped Bronco behind Locky (335), Parker (347) and Thaiday (304).
For much of the match, Newcastle actually dominated field position but they couldn’t quite nail the attack against a Brisbane outfit that were clearly playing for their future – for the momentum they need to sustain them across another drab offseason. The Broncos’ win was all the more impressive in that they lost Payne Haas at the end of the first half to an ankle injury, and Jake Turpin to a broken jaw, meaning that the Knights have to really rally the troops when they meet a Parra outfit desperate to prove their finals credentials next week.
Newcastle had the first carry and made good metres up the left edge early in the set, where Kalyn Ponga got them more position with a deft offload. Mitchell Pearce opted to run it on the last, switching the play to the other corner, and culminating one of the busiest opening sets of the year in terms of passing and ball play. Yet the speed of it all overtook the Knights – or at least overtook Kurt Mann, who tried to chip into the wing but sent it over the sideline.
The visitors certainly hadn’t exhausted themselves in this opening stint, executing their next set like they were always playing finals footy. This time they carved up the middle, before Jake Clifford booted it end-over-end, forcing the Broncos to work it back from their own half. Yet Brisbane were up to the challenge, making their way up the right edge, only for Xavier Coates to follow Mann by booting it into touch, this time with a long kick over the dead line.
This already promised to be a high-octane match, and would turn out to be a good counterpoint to some of the drabber one-sided efforts of Round 25 – especially the Warriors’ and Wests Tigers’ abysmal performances the following afternoon. The Knights used their third carry to try and make good on that previous right edge sweep – and this time they made it all the way to the line, where Ponga flicked a cut-out pass along the ground to Starford To’a. Still, the try remained elusive, as the Steeden ricocheted off Brodie Jones instead of clearing him.
Brisbane now had to absorb all this energy back again and they started with a great foray up the middle, including the first post-contact stint from Payne Haas on tackle four. Anthony Milford hoisted it high, Coates fumbled it into the sun and Albert Kelly came up with one of Brisbane’s best assists of the season, outpacing and then offloading through Ponga to Kobe Hetherington, who took it off the ground and slammed over for a try beneath the crossbar.
Herbie Farnworth was always going to add the extras from right in front, and just like that the Broncos were just under a point per minute against a top eight outfit. Kelly followed Haas by adding to the post-contact tally on tackle four and Milford ended with another soaring bomb, forcing To’a to sit down awkwardly to take it on the full. Nevertheless, the Knights were back in Brisbane’s red zone halfway through their set, only to botch a try on the other wing, where Enari Tuala put down a Bradman Best offload to concede seven tackles back to the Broncos.
As if that wasn’t a fast enough turnaround, Brisbane now got the first two penalties of the game, after Josh King and Jack Johns were both pinged for crowding, while the hosts got an extra burst of confidence when they sent up a good captain’s challenge to secure Johns’ error. Two tackles later, they were back in Newcastle’s twenty, sticking around the right side of the park before opting for a rapid left sweep that saw Farnworth break through a Mann tackle before slipping at the feet of Pearce – and slightly injuring his left knee under Mann’s contact.
He stayed on the park, and the set ended with Milford channelling Nathan Cleary by aiming his grubber at the left post, but he couldn’t quite nail the angle, and instead sent the Steeden spinning over the sideline. This was a big letoff for Newcastle after this accumulating pressure on their line, and they didn’t waste any time returning to the Brisbane red zone, which they reached by tackle three, before Best tried to make his way to another Tuala combo but to no avail. In the end, Clifford’s grubber wasn’t much better than Milford’s – and Milford took it.
Once again, the Knights followed an aborted set by conceding an early penalty, as Farnworth copped the brunt of their defence on both his lower and upper body, thanks to a swinging arm from Johns that piggy-backed his men up the park. Finally, a left edge sweep came together, as Milford promoted the footy, drew in the Newcastle defence, and sent a superb cut-out to Tesi Niu, who responded with a terrific catch-and-pass for Farnworth to run deep into the line and put Corey Oates across in the corner for his fourteenth game of the season.
Farnworth was a figurehead for the Broncos at this point in the game. He’d suffered a couple of hard knocks, but he’d responded with a silky try assist and an equally confident sideline conversion – a perfect strike from the left edge that put Brisbane at twelve unanswered points. Meanwhile, the Knights looked slightly neutered next time they had ball in hand, failing to make it beyond the Brisbane forty, where Pearce had to settle for a standard bomb.
Milford now followed Haas and Kelly with post-contact metres on play four, standing in the tackle for an age, and eventually walking forward off the mark to lose the footy. The Broncos sent it upstairs, but it wasn’t as good as their last challenge, and so the Knights got the ball back as Jirah Momoisea came off the bench for Josh King. This was a potential tipping-point for Newcastle, who made good on it with a series of punishing runs, including a huge hit from Johns, to clear space for a Pearce grubber that Kelly couldn’t deflect and Haas couldn’t take.
That left Milford as last line of defence in goal, where he had no option but to reach out his hand and tap it precariously into touch – and even then Oates had to shepherd it as Knights stormed in from all sides. This was the kind of grubber that changes games, deceiving and dissembling the Brisbane defence in a single trajectory, so it was a big win when Niu scooped up a loose carry from Pearce himself to get the Broncos on the front foot once again. It was the best possible moment for Rhys Kennedy and TC Robati to come on for some more grunt.
For a moment, it looked like Robati might make his mark off the bench with an improbable dropout of his own, after Coates collected the high ball and flicked it back inside to him. But Robati is no kicker, at least not at this point in his career, and he booted it like a forward, sending it well over the dead ball line to give Newcastle another chance to get on the board. Clifford tried to recreate Pearce’s grubber on the left side of the park, but he couldn’t make it through the line, while Niu came up with a second save as Haas went to ground in backplay.
Play was paused as he edged his way over the sideline, presumably as a result of a Johns and Best tackle that had twisted his leg awkwardly in the maelstrom that descended on Clifford’s grubber. This was a big blow for Brisbane and for Haas himself, but to their credit the Broncos didn’t let the dour spectacle of him leaving the park on the minicab dent their momentum over the rest of the game, even if they did have a brief lull in the immediate wake of his departure – a Coates knock-on beneath Kelly’s kick and then a ruck mistake from Jake Turpin.
This was probably the most vulnerable period of the game so far for Brisbane, so Newcastle really had to consolidate here – and David Klemmer got them rolling with his own post-contact metres to clear up space for a deep drive to the ten, where Pearce booted it across to the left corner. The most complex sequence beneath the high ball now ensued, as the footy seemed like it might just have sailed through both Clifford and Kelly’s hands before Johns tapped it back twice to Ponga, who executed a rapid left sweep to put Best over in the corner.
Instead, the replay showed that Clifford had knocked it on into Kelly, meaning the rest of this passage was moot – a pity, since this was one of Ponga’s best kicks of the night. Still, the Knights got the ball back a few tackles later, when Jordan Riki was pinged for an obstruction, and from here Ponga and Pearce took control, effectively repeating that last sequence on the left edge but bypassing any messy intermediary. Pearce sent out a superb wide ball to Ponga, and Ponga drove it into the line for a beautiful harbour bridge effort to Tuala out on the wing.
This kind of ball control was always going to produce a try, and sure enough Tuala put it down untouched with one hand – and while Clifford might have missed the sideline conversion, keeping Brisbane triple Newcastle at 12-4, the sheer professionalism of these four points suggested that the Knights wouldn’t take long to get back on the board, especially now that Pearce and Ponga seemed to have fully woken up. On the other side of the Steeden, the Broncos had to recover their splendid flow of the first quarter as rapidly as possible from here.
Farnworth was the man for the job, breaking into space on the very next set, and kicking at speed straight down the middle, as both teams converged for the most exciting chase of the game. Pearce was the frontrunner for a while, then Milford overtook him, before Niu almost gave Tuala a run for his money with what would have been the best one-handed putdown of the season if he’d pulled it off. As it was, he – only just – lost control of the footy as he slid onto the ground, reached out his right hand, and pulled it back into the rhythm of his landing.
This was just the play that Brisbane needed to recover their momentum, so not scoring it opened up a particularly precarious period in which Newcastle searched for opportunities to absorb its speed and strength into their own attack. Ideally, the Broncos needed the Knights to botch a try to restore the balance – and that’s just what they got on the following set. Even better, the Knights botched the combination of their last try, as Pearce and Ponga set up Tuala again, but Enari responded with a one-handed knock-on instead of a one-handed putdown.
Not only had Newcastle lost a try but they’d somehow diluted the impact of their first try, so we were back to a level playing-field as the Broncos got a penalty right on the Knights’ line off a late tackle from Pasami Saulo on Milford – a pretty lucky call, since this was only marginally late, while it preceded a mercurial sequence in which Farnworth drove the Steeden deep into the left edge, and showed it so subliminally for Oates that he almost handed it to him, slowing down the play so expertly that his winger wasn’t quite ready to just collect it and stroll over.
All in all, this had been one of the most visionary games of Farnworth’s career, so it felt right that he put down a try at the end of the repeat set, when he chased down a Niu grubber and ground it with both hands right in front of the dead ball line. His second kick from the left sideline was just as good, bringing Brisbane to 18-4 with four minutes to the halftime siren – and they maintained that lead when Pearce came in with a swinging arm into Milford’s face, preventing the Knights from having much field position before they headed back to the sheds.
Newcastle got an early chance when Kelly dove and missed the kickoff, packing the scrum at the ten with thirty seconds on the clock – and once again Pearce, Ponga and Tuala combined for a left edge sweep. For the second time, however, Tuala was unable to secure the putdown, thanks to some tough defensive pressure from Coates, who actually rocketed the footy out of Enari’s grasp as they both hung above the sideline. It was almost worth Kelly fumbling the ball to see Coates put in this sterling display, which restored the Broncos’ drive immediately.
They didn’t waste any time scoring either, as Milford took it up the middle, flicked it out to Selwyn Cobbo, and took it back again, timing the pass and run so perfectly that he was able to slow down and show the Steeden in celebration before executing one of the most leisurely tries of the year. Put it down to a messy miss from Best too, along with a Newcastle outfit that were looking pretty fatigued more generally as Farnworth booted across his fourth kick.
The Knights got seven tackles to play with at the end of the restart but Klemmer couldn’t make too many metres after contact this time around, while Connor Watson was actually dragged backwards by Riki. They desperately needed the second restart of the game a tackle later, and yet no sooner had they garnered this additional field position than they suffered their biggest blow of the afternoon, when Klemmer lost the footy into a one-on-one strip from Glenn, who flicked it on for Milford to barnstorm his way back up the middle of the field.
This shift in possession wasn’t the main issue, especially since Milford mistimed the offload to Robati to hand it back over to Newcastle. Instead, the issue was why Klemmer had allowed Glenn to take the footy in the first place, since this was no regular loose carry, but the result of a punishing combined tackle from Riki, Hetherington and Kelly – all legal, but twisted and contorted enough to put Klemmer out of action with what appeared to be a rib cartilage injury, a pretty dispiriting sight for the Knights on the cusp of next week’s game against Parra.
They needed to score a try now just to keep their heads up, so it was cathartic when Phoenix Crossland grubbered for the most dangerous bounce of their game at the end of the very next set, and from twenty-five metres out to boot. Oates got to it in time, and reached out his right hand to tap it back into his left, but he didn’t quite anticipate the angle and trajectory, leaving it live for To’a to take in both hands and plant down. Clifford added his first conversion of the game, and the Knights only had a converted try deficit to deal with as they hit fifty minutes.
Brisbane didn’t take long to strike back though, quashing this brief Newcastle comeback with their most soaring try of the game and one of the most seamless intercepts of the season. Inserting himself into a left sweep, Cobbo leaped up to take a Clifford wide ball at the very apex of its arc, and accelerated off the right boot towards the Newcastle line. Coates was coming up in support but Cobbo didn’t need him, lurching his six-foot-plus frame so rapidly into space that the defenders died away, making this run feel more like a stunning victory lap.
Clifford banged the two points over again, and the Broncos were back to triple the Knights at 30-10. This was starting to turn into a liability for Newcastle on the cusp of finals footy, both in terms of the psychological toil and the physical exhaustion of defending one of the most vigorous attacking teams in this last week of the regular season. To their credit, the visitors elasticised a few sets later, spreading it out to the left, but they were unable to repeat this speed on the right, where Oates came in low and hard on Simi Sagagi to rattle the footy free.
Tuala rallied the troops by returning the favour on Coates on the next set, while tumbling him over the sideline for good measure, and the Knights wisely chose to spend their next bout of position on the left edge, only returning to the right with Clifford’s chip. Farnworth caught it on the full, but Clifford forced him to jump so high for it, and so close to the line, that he was unable to regain his balance before a wave of Newcastle defenders slammed him back in goal.
On the cusp of the final quarter, this dropout was a do-or-die moment for the Knights – if they couldn’t score here, they might as well concede the rest of the game to Brisbane. Glenn had a pretty quiet afternoon so far, with only a single run, but he made a big statement in defence now, combining with Rhys Kennedy to lift Saulo clean off the ground and slam him down on his back. Clifford’s boot did the trick again on the other side of the park, this time with a grubber that Cobbo had no choice but to take into touch with Johns storming up behind him.
A sombre mood seemed to descend on the Knights as they waited for this second dropout – an awareness that scoring here wouldn’t even be that much of an achievement, while not scoring would be catastrophic. It ended even worse than they might have imagined, as Niu went short with the kick, Sasagi knocked it on, Brisbane packed the scrum, and Milford broke into space a few tackles later, drifting languorously across the park to assist Niu for back-to-back tries, before Clifford missed his first conversion to keep the Broncos at a 34-point lead.
It hardly mattered though, since this sequence was a full stop on the game – proof positive that Brisbane truly were the best outfit on the park, even though they were in the bottom four and Newcastle in the top eight. The Knights would go on to score two more tries, but at this point they felt more like consolation efforts – last-ditch attempts to regain their composure as they prepared to take on Parramatta the next week. They got their chance pretty quickly, when Kelly reprised his fumble under the kickoff that started this second half.
For the first time in a while, Newcastle opted for a right-side short-range play, but Mann couldn’t pivot off his right boot quite rapidly enough to make it work. Even so, they got the first six again, in the opposition ten, thanks to a ruck error from Corey Paix, as Chris Randall drove it deep beside the right post, where he was held up by a scrambling Brisbane defence – perhaps the first scrambling defence we’d seen from the Broncos all night. In the end, though, it all came down to Clifford’s kick, another silky grubber on the left side of the park.
In a great rallying-point for the flagging Knights, Jack Johns celebrated his first NRL start with his first NRL try, chasing down and grounding the footy 22 years after Matty Johns scored his last one for Newcastle. Brisbane were determined not to let them consolidate on the restart, summoning a tough pack to drag back King on play one, before Kelly wrenched the footy free from Momoisea, but not before Kennedy had pulled back from the lower part of the tackle.
Rather than shutting down the restart, the Broncos had augmented it, and ended up conceding the toughest try of the game as soon as the Knights reached their line. Jones set it up with a hard run into Ethan Bullemor, careening away from the tackle and offloading through Hetherington as he came to ground. Finally, Randall made good on his mad charge at the post a few minutes before, taking the Steeden on the full and smashing off Momoisea, embodying a Newcastle outfit determined to muscle their way to a top four-worthy finish.
For a moment it looked like we might be in for a major comeback – and if that had happened, it would have propelled the Knights into full finals flow when they headed back to the sheds. They got another shot and another augmented restart when Niu knocked on Crossland’s last-tackle bomb, but it all came apart when Watson flicked it forward to Johns as part of a left sweep. Even then, they got more field position when Robati was pinged for a flop on Best, and a chance to get their breath when Coates briefly got attention for a potential arm issue.
Finally, Tuala glimpsed some space on the left edge, where he dodged around a couple of potential tackles before being held up right on the line. Yet this was the last chance in this final Newcastle surge, since Niu cleaned up the kick pretty easily – and if anything, this whole closing sequence clarified how much field position and possession it had taken for the Knights to eventually make their way back onto the board. Once again, the Broncos were back in control, back in the long-range flow of that last try from Niu – they just needed one more flex.
Milford provided it, celebrating his final game in Brisbane colours with a one-point field goal five minutes out from the break. While Best broke through the line a few minutes later, the Knights couldn’t respond convincingly here, giving the end of the game an unusual atmosphere. Newcastle were going on to finals footy and Brisbane had ended in the bottom four, but you’d think it was the opposite way around now, as the Broncos charged themselves with a great motivator for when they build their way back to the top eight in years to come.