ROUND 7: Newcastle Knights v. Parramatta Eels (McDonald Jones Stadium, 24/4/22, 2-39)
Saturday afternoon’s game in the Hunter marked the start of two lopsided contests, although the Raiders managed a more heroic showing against Penrith than anything Newcastle could muster here. Averaging only 11 points a game, the Knights hadn’t won in a month, and needed to make the most of a 25 000-strong home crowd behind them, but instead failed to score a single try, while offering up such paper-thin defence that Adam O’Brien only had one words for the fans during the post-match interview – a very heartfelt “sorry.”
On the other side of the Steeden, this was a critical bounce back for Parra after last week’s shock loss for the Tigers – and especially for Mitch Moses, who always takes the battles with his former club personally, and missed the potential match-winning drop kick in that fateful contest. Moses was on fire this afternoon, barking out orders and banging through twos from every part of the park, while providing enough organisation to support Brad Arthur’s decision to shift Jake Arthur into the five-eighth role and parlay Dylan Brown’s skills into left centre.
With each fresh try, the Newcastle defence seemed to dissolve – when Shaun Lane busted through on the left, when Haze Perham scored half an hour it, and finally when Isaiah Papali’i racked up a double, the first off a dummy half assist and the second from dummy half, to decisively own the game for the blue and gold. The softest of putdowns from Penisini flowed on from there, as the Knights tried and failed to get a consolation effort before the break, raising grave concerns ahead of their match with a ravenous Melbourne outfit next week.
Jacob Saifiti took the opening run, Chris Randall almost strongarmed his way through the line on the second, and Saifiti took another hit-up late in the count, getting Jake Clifford in position to bomb from the forty, as Perham responded with a superb take on the full. Parra were over halfway midway through their opening set, and Moses went bomb-for bomb from 35 out, as Enari Tuala showed he could match Perham under the high ball. David Klemmer got metres halfway through the next set, and the Knights swept left, but couldn’t hit the wing.
Instead, Kalyn Ponga was cleaned up in the middle of the field, before taking the next high ball on his own line, and copping a big Parra pack that dragged him back when he broke the ten. This marked the start of a struggling set for the Knights, who spent the whole count in their own end, despite a decent Brodie Jones run, before Clifford recouped some field position with a high enough boot for Dane Gagai to slam in on the chase and prevent Perham making any headway. Parra drove it hard and fast up the middle, as Moses shaped to kick.
It was a beautiful deception play, giving Mitch time to dart through the line and chip at speed, only for Edrick Lee to scoop up the Steeden and Gagai to get his men a full set in the Parra half by tempting a second effort from Nathan Brown. No sooner had the big men laid the platform than Adam Clune showed Moses he could come up with an unexpected kick too, booting it through on the third for Clint Gutherson to only just bump into touch before he sent the dropout too short to gift Clifford a penalty kick from the ten.
Parramatta survived the restart, and got a penalty of their own to recover the momentum of Moses’ inspired chip kick when Clifford was pinged for a slow peel early in the set. Shaun Lane took the first run, and then the last, when he slammed over on the left through a non-existent Newcastle defence that technically consisted of Klemmer, who inexplicably opted for a legs tackle rather than a ball-and-all right on the line, and Randall, who came in on top but couldn’t stop Lane lunging to ground after he’d got through Big Klem.
Moses added a comfortable kick to make it a 6-2 lead, while Dylan Brown had showed his worth in the centres with some deft footwork in the buildup to the try. They shifted right halfway through the restart, and stayed there until Moses bombed back to the other side of the park, where Tuala came up with his second strong catch of the afternoon. Lee plunged into the defence to make up for lost time, but once again the Knights failed to sweep all the way to the right, as Tyson Frizell, rather than Ponga, came to a halt this time around.
Both sides were sitting at perfect completion rates as Parra got the ball again, staying on the right edge of the park, where Clune came in for a strong shutdown on Will Penisini, and Moses opted to bomb straight ahead getting a little less height, making for an easy Ponga take. Clifford continued the bomb-for-bomb rhythm of the first quarter, and while Gutho took it on the full, Gagai was there to prevent him gaining any position. Little by little, and despite the four-point lead for Parra, the game was starting to settled into a deadlocked atmosphere.
The Knights got their chance on the very next set, when Reed Mahoney made incidental contact on Ponga while Lee still had the footy. Bradman Best took the first tackle at the Parra forty, and for a third time Newcastle couldn’t make it to the wing, with Ponga once again taking the brunt of the defensive effort, before being taken to the field for an injury, after making contact with a Parramatta knee when he ricocheted off the Mahoney push. Meanwhile, Mahoney charged down Clune’s kick, and the Knights got six more.
A second later, Tuala lost the footy, and the set-to-set rhythm of the last ten minutes had well and truly given way to a more volatile period of play, giving the Eels a chance to return to the flow of their opening try if they could ride the adrenalin now. Mahoney got them rolling with a strong short side play, and Moses and Arthur had their first linkup back in field – a short ball from Mitch, and an angular chip from Jake that Kurt Mann knocked forward right on the line before desperately diving on it to prevent the Eels scoring then and there.
The Knights still had to defend a dropout without Ponga in their ranks, but now it was Parra’s turn to lose the footy early in the count, as Gagai came in on Nathan Brown with such force that he pre-emptively put down the Steeden to gift Newcastle a scrum thirty metres out from their own line. Klemmer won a penalty halfway up the park by catching Mahoney offside within the ten, and then failed to get an offload midway through the set, as did Gagai when he was wrapped up by a Parramatta pack at the end of a big right sweep.
For the second time, the Knights got a chargedown, this time off Moses, as Saifiti darted and wove in an attempt to break the line on tackle two, the big men opted for some standard plays up the middle, and a pair of offloads from Jones and Simi Sasagi got Clunes in place for a harbour bridge ball to Lee, who loped back in field, lending his momentum to a final right sweep that ended with Gagai lobbing it back from the sideline for Tuala to boot it too far for seven tackles. After a set-for-set opening quarter, it was the messiest sequence so far.
That chaos continued when Brown put it down and Gagai scooped it up, but from there we started to glimpse that set-for-set rhythm again, as Moses sent through another big bomb and Clifford came a metre short of a 40/20. At least he kept Parramatta trapped in their own end for the subsequent set – that is, until Randall got done for a slow peel, giving Dylan Brown his first real platform to show how well he could parlay his five-eighth skill set into the left centre role, starting with a Gutho combo to build space for Perham up the edge of the park.
From there, he shifted the footy back inside, and then played a pivotal role in a sweep back to Lane, who plunged into Gagai and Klemmer, managed to remain almost vertical, and flicked the ball out for Perham to smash over on the wing. Moses made it 7/8 from the left touchline with a superb strike straight through the posts, bringing Parra to a 12-2 lead as Ponga prepared to return to the park. Newcastle survived the dropout, got their fullback again, and spread to the right, where Frizell found space, but no real support on his inside.
Parra were back on the Newcastle line in no time, where Moses dove on the footy after it was charged down, Ponga made one of the best hits of his career on Arthur, and Frizell got done for an early tackle, setting up Moses to take the safe bet and boot through two to make it a twelve point lead. Mitch made a superb run at the end of the restart, but with Best slamming him to ground, and Mahoney knocking on, the last note of the first stanza would have been a Newcastle scrum if Parra hadn’t summoned a huge pack to bump Tuala over the sideline.
Instead the Eels got the scrum, and Moses channelled his career-high flow into a two-point field goal attempt, only to shank it too far to the left. Even the gesture of putting ball to boot here spoke to Parramatta’s confidence, setting the Knights a big challenge when they returned from the sheds. Ponga was safe beneath Moses’ first bomb, Tuala came off the wing to be bent back awkwardly in the middle of the park, and Clune glimpsed a passage past Moses up the left, only for Clifford to end with a relatively straightforward bomb.
Play paused a moment later for Gagai, who copped Bailey Simonsson’s elbow on the cheek, and while he remained on the park, the Knights really struggled to break their own twenty next time they had ball in hand. Parramatta were playing like they didn’t have an advantage, fighting for every metre, and building their next burst of position through a methodical pair of offloads up the left edge – the first from Oregon Kaufusi, on the ground, to Matto, and the second a very late second phase effort from Matto back to Mahoney.
Nevertheless, we were on the verge of returning to the set-for-set rhythm of the first quarter, so it was a big deal when Randall made the first error of the second stanza with a cold drop early in the count. Mahoney wasted no time driving the Steeden deep into the line, setting up Dylan Brown for a superb sequel to Lane’s opening try – straight through Gagai, over a last-ditch legs tackle from Clifford, and onto the ground with Ponga’s final contact making absolutely no impact – before Moses booted through another two to make it an 18-2 lead.
It was clear Mitch was pumped by this consistency with the kicks, while Dylan Brown, hardly the biggest player on the park, had proved his mettle in the left centre experiment. Makahesi Makatoa made massive metres midway through the restart, and Matto followed in his wake to make it sixty as the Newcastle defence simply dropped away, so it was a big win when Best took Moses’ kick on the full and made twenty up the left edge, even if Moses was the man who surged across field and prevented him getting any more position.
Yet that brief adrenalin surge was immediately reabsorbed by the Eels when Lee lost the footy on tackle two, as the Knights went from their first real rhythm since the break to defending a full set in their thirty. Arthur put Lane over the ten on tackle four, and the Eels elasticised with a Makatoa offload and precarious Gutherson ball out to the right, before Clifford took the chip back to the left edge, but not without Phoenix Crossland conceding an escort. The call came down to take the two, and Moses slotted it through to garner a twenty-point lead.
With this superb kicking streak, Moses was now at 68 points for the season, well ahead of Val Holmes at 60, and gaining on Ryan Papenhuyzen’s table-topping 79. By the time they got the ball back, Newcastle were only sitting on 32% possession since the break, so they needed a special play, and Clifford aimed for it with another 40/20, only for Simonsson to shut him down for the second time as the footy decelerated two feet out from the sideline. Meanwhile, Parra were back at halfway midway through the set, as the metres kept on coming.
It was a small victory, then, when a Lee legs tackle forced a Peninsi cough-up just as Parra were charging towards the twenty. A scrum feed was a precious asset at this point in the game, and the Knights did well up the right, only for Clifford to boot through his worst short one of the game, giving Gutho ample time to bring it back from the goal area with seven tackles up his sleeve, as the Eels settled into tackle one on the cusp of the Newcastle forty. Matto made twenty to hit the ten, and Papali’i offloaded for Paulo right on the chalk.
This was the best accumulation of position all afternoon, and it ended with a try that made the defence on Lane and Dylan Brown look like top-tier footy. All it took was a short ball from Mahoney to Papali’i, who burrowed in deep for a crash play a metre out. Four Knights defenders held him up, the tackle decelerated, and seemed on the verge of completion, before big Isaiah somehow broke away entirely, spinning to ground and planting the Steeden down comfortably with only a half-hearted final hit from Clifford to contend with.
Moses was banging them through from every part of the park, and got the two again here, as the Knights’ priorities changed on the cusp of the final quarter. Unless they got a couple of sublime individual plays, there was no chance of winning the match, so they just had to put a try on the board, and from there narrow the deficit as much as possible. Ponga did well to clean up a Moses 40/20 attempt at the end of the restart, while Mitch’s next one ricocheted off Best to gift Newcastle their opening tackle on the cusp of the halfway line.
Again, Ponga failed to execute a sweep to the left, but at least his men were only 32 metres out with the bulk of the set before them, while Ponga made up for a cut-out pass to Lee, who responded with their first offload in a while. Nevertheless, Dylan Brown took an average Clune kick without even leaving the ground, like it was a Parramatta training run, and while Gutho didn’t get lucky with a crusher penalty a few plays later, the Eels didn’t really need it, since Moses did better with the boot this time, sending it long and hard for Lee to take on the right.
Ponga momentarily came to life now with his best run of the match so far, dodging and weaving around the defence to make twenty-five upfield, but Clifford’s kick was as uneventful as Clune’s – a standard grubber that landed straight in Gutherson’s paws. Now, in a play that summarised Newcastle’s afternoon, three Knights slammed into Penisini only for the young no. 3 to flick the footy so quickly to Mahoney that it looked like an optical illusion, before Reed put Simonsson through the line for forty metres up the middle of the park.
From there, Simonsson offloaded through an ankle tap for Dylan Brown, who made it third phase play for Gutho to put RCG into the twenty for his first carry off the bench. Nathan Brown hit the ten with a big left-foot step, Moses ended with a consummately professional dab that Lee had to bump into touch, Clifford booted the dropout over the sideline, and the Eels finally opted to take the two – and only needed two tackles to carve another big hole in the Newcastle line when Papali’i shrugged off Best, Crossland and Ponga for a double on the right.
Last time Papali’i had scored off a dummy half pass, and now he scored from double half, while Moses missed his first conversion of the night to keep it a thirty point lead. Ten minutes on the clock and the Knights still hadn’t nabbed a try, while they gave Parra their next chance with an unforced error from Sasagi at the back of some poor dummy half service from Crossland. In a flashback to his heads-up chip against the Sharks, Moses chipped on tackle one, and the Bunker came in to parse the closest sequence of the entire match.
After some extensive scrutiny, they decided that Lee had got the first touch during the initial contest with Simonsson, and even then only hit it before the chalk, leaving the footy live for Penisini to reach out a hand and pat down his first four points of the season. Moses booted through one of his straightest trajectories so far, while Penisini’s putdown made it 30 000 premiership points for Parra, and all in a game where the home team still hadn’t scored a try, while Mahoney seemed determined to keep it that way by putting the next kick over the side.
Since the break, Newcastle only had a single tackle in Parra’s twenty, only eleven in Parra’s half, and only seven completed sets to Parra’s fifteen. On the other side of the Steeden, the Eels got their next chance when Simonsson twisted Lee 360 degrees and into touch, in what was initially deemed a second effort, but with a challenge turned into a legitimate hit. Moses was pumped up, barking out orders at his team, while Lane intercepted a Tuala clutch pass just when Newcastle glimpsed some space up the right sideline.
Lee had enjoyed a spectacular afternoon with the run metres, topping the park on 161, but beneath him it was all blue and gold, with Matto at 138, Papali’i at 130, Simonsson at 124 and Paulo at 121. The weight of all that exhaustion decelerated Newcastle in the dying moments of the game, and they headed to the sheds with a sole penalty try to their name – a dispiriting prospect as they prepare to take on the Storm next week – while Moses culminated a superb comeback from last week’s shock loss to the Tiges with a field goal in the last thirty seconds.
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