ROUND 8: Newcastle Knights v. Melbourne Storm (McDonald Jones Stadium, 1/5/22, 2-50)
If last week’s game in the Hunter was catastrophic for the Knights, then Sunday’s loss to the Storm was traumatic. For the first twelve minutes Newcastle didn’t touch the footy, during which time Melbourne put down two of the nine tries they would rack up by the final siren, bringing them to 120 points in two weeks after their 70-10 landslide over the Warriors at AAMI Park. On the other side of the Steeden, the Knights have come away with back-to-back losses without scoring a try for only the third time in club history, after 2016 and 1990.
Jake Clifford sent the kickoff out on the full, and Xavier Coates did well to stick his right leg over the sideline and reach a metre back in field to take it clean. The Storm thus started forty metres out from the Newcastle line, where Nelson Asofa-Solomona took the opening run, and Nick Meaney came dangerously close to breaking through up the left on tackle two. Jahrome Hughes got a beautiful offload away a play later, and six more followed in his wake, taking us to seventh phase play by the time Melbourne got six again off a Newcastle touch.
Enari Tuala did well to shut down Kenny Bromwich at the end of a Cam Munster-inspired left sweep, but with so much momentum behind them it was only a matter of time before the purple army crossed over. All it took with a deft dummy half ball from Harry Grant for Justin Olam to smash through Simi Sosagi for the first four, before Ryan Papenhuyzen added the extras to make it 6-0 before the Knights had even touched the ball. Meanwhile NAS got the restart rolling by running straight over Sauaso Sue, who left the park for an HIA a minute later.
Olam followed his try by busting up the line midway through the set, but chose to run it alone rather than shifting it back in field, meaning it all came down to a perfect Hughes bomb to the right, where Edrick Lee lost it, Adam Clune fumbled it on the ground, and was called offside to get Melbourne another stint on the chalk. Grant fed a poor ball to Papenhuyzen, who could only manage an awkward grubber that ricocheted off the Newcastle defence, but still the Storm got a scrum from the ten when the Knights knocked it along the ground.
The visitors now compressed all their drive into one play, as Grant drove deep into the line on play one off the scrum, pulling in five defenders, including Kalyn Ponga, none of whom could prevent him flicking an offload out to Reimis Smith, who supplied a superb catch-and-pass for Coates to bust over for a try on the wing. Paps might have missed the kick, but the Storm still had ten unanswered points, one per minute, and Newcastle hadn’t even had a set. Again, NAS took the first hit-up, and it felt like this purple flow could go on forever.
Play paused on tackle three when Tyson Frizell was put on report for a crusher on Kenny Bromwich, bumping Melbourne back down the other end of the field for yet another attack on the line. Like clockwork, NAS took the opening carry, and Munster showed good hands to withstand an assertive tackle from Clifford, before NAS steadied the ship after this brief blip with another run on the third. Finally, Munster booted it too far for Meaney to collect on the sideline, and the home team got their first footy, twelve minutes into the match.
Clifford’s kick was just as bad as the kickoff – hips facing the sideline, angle all out, over the chalk on the full. The crowd was deathly silent as Felise Kaufusi took over first-tackle duties from NAS, and Josh King almost broke through a Clune ankle tap, before turning it into a penalty for lying in the ruck. It barely felt eventful to see Melbourne in the Newcastle twenty anymore, as NAS returned to his opening-play run, Papenhuyzen paused to avoid an obstruction on the right, and the Storm got a technical marker penalty from David Klemmer.
Ponga now woke up, slamming in from the middle of the park to pop Meaney into touch at the end of what looked sure to be a trysaving left sweep. The Knights got their first penalty a play later, when Grant held down for a little too long, and stuck in to work their way back from only 52 seconds of possession in over fifteen minutes of football. With a restart late in the count they hit the Melbourne red zone for the first time, as King cleaned up Clune before he could pass on the cusp of the ten, and Klem took a big charge out on the left edge.
He didn’t get his first try in Newcastle colours, while the Storm did well to clean up an uninspired run from Clifford, whose confidence was clearly down after those two opening kicks. The Knights might have completed their second set, but Brandon Smith was waiting to come onto the park, while word returned from the sheds that Sue had failed his HIA. The Storm were back on the halfway line by Hughes’ kick, thanks to a deft Jesse Bromwich offload two plays before that set up Munster for a restless run along the face of the defence.
It was a small victory that the Knights were now going set-for-set, even if Clune still failed to find options, and Clifford’s first respectable kick was easily fielded by Papenhuyzen. Sasagi got some revenge for the opening try by picking Olam off the field, but not without the cult winger getting away an offload that kept his men rolling into a big Meaney run up the left, where Ponga slammed in for a second time as last line of defence, before Munster lobbed out a mistimed pass that Kaufusi scooped up at the death and flicked on to Hughes.
Time now slowed down, as Hughes paused, looked at the ref to check the tackle count, then found himself without space to kick, and so passed it out to Reimis Smith, who caught-and-passed to Coates in turn. Last time this combo produced a try, and now it resulted in an assist, as Xavier booted it back in field for Hughes to chase down behind the line for a grounding that was as mercurial as his original pass. Only in slow motion could you see how elegantly he’d pulled his left boot back from the line as he comfortably put the footy down with both hands.
Newcastle survived the restart, but their last-tackle options didn’t get any better, as Ponga was now forced to bomb it from dummy half, with Clifford sitting out on the right and Clune nursing a busted knee. The ball landed on Coates, who acted as if he’d pulled back from the play, as it rolled down his knee, but had put himself beneath it to begin with, making the onfield ruling of no contest a bit perplexing. Luckily the Bunker made the right decision when Ponga sent it upstairs, and the Knights had their first repeat set of the afternoon.
Ponga couldn’t do much with Munster in his face up the right edge, but he elasticised later in the set, sending it out for Lee, and then shifting it back to the right, where Sasagi took his second great charge of the count. For the first time, Newcastle had really accelerated, and Leo Thompson parlayed that aggro by spearheading a pack effort on Cheese on the next Melbourne play. For the first time, the purple army struggled to work it out of their own end, while Ponga did well to take a soaring Munster bomb and beat both Munster and King.
Midway through the set, Tuala got through a Brandon Smith tackle to land over halfway, so it was a big anticlimax when Thompson, the man who had set up this last surge, was far too flat to take a Clune pass clean. Even worse, Olam made it a double on the next Melbourne set by throwing all of Newcastle’s right edge issues into traumatic relief. Receiving the footy from Munster, he stopped completely just inside the twenty, in the face of a Sasagi tackle, and then busted through it, while trampling through a low shot from Clifford to hit the ten.
Once there, he was met by Tuala, who couldn’t hold him, and Ponga, who missed him entirely. Even then, there was Klemmer to contend with on the line, but by this stage the PNG national was moving like a mack truck, busting through his fifth tackle as Adam O’Brien cast his gaze downward in the coaches’ box, as if preparing for another apology in this week’s press conference. Paps brought the Storm to 20 unanswered points, and while Meaney got done for a slow peel a minute later, it came to nothing with a Phoenix Crossland knock-on.
The Storm consolidated again on their next set, threatening to break through on every tackle, before Munster condensed all that plosive energy into a bouncing ball to the left edge that was so suffused with energy and momentum that Meaney was able to scoop it up and boot it all the way back to the crossbar, where Paps came dangerously close to grounding it before Clune got on his bike and bumped it into touch at the last second. Clifford sent the dropout 65 metres, but King made thirty run metres, and the Storm were back in full flow.
After such an aggressive set to produce the dropout, they expanded into a new calm now, by way of a perfect right sweep in which Brandon Smith and Hughes timed their passes perfectly before Reimis Smith popped a deft no-looker out to Coates, who made it six tries in two games. Pivoting off the right boot, he got inside Best, stuck his left arm into Clune’s face, and used the right to slam the Steeden down – yet another notch in his belt, and the latest in a incredible period of career growth that’s seem him evolve in leaps and bounds each week.
If the last note of the first act was bathos, as Clifford took a penalty shot after the siren to finally put Newcastle on the board at 26-2, then the first note of the second act was pathos, as the Knights went from a mistake on the opening kickoff to letting Papenhuyzen’s kickoff trickle through the backline and over the chalk. Despite a big gee up from O’Brien in the sheds, the home team were back defending their line, as the Storm forced a dropout, Clune got done for an obstruction, and Coates made it a hat trick after his four against New Zealand.
This was the simplest try so far – an even cleaner and crisper version of the combo that had put Coates across before the break, as the footy moved through Brandon Smith, Hughes and Reimis Smith for Xavier to cross untouched. Paps might have sent the kick across the front of the posts, but this was still a 30-2 lead with 35 minutes left on the clock. Brandon Smith elasticied the restart four plays in, getting Hughes in place for a kick from the right that Ponga caught on the full as the chase stormed in to suffocate him.
Four plays later, on the cusp of Melbourne territory, Klemmer lost the ball into a clinical low shot from Grant, only for Trent Loeiro to do the same two plays off the midfield scrum, thanks to a revenge tackle from big Klem. Best and Ponga drove it hard up the left, but the Knights faltered as soon as they tried to parlay that plosion back across the park, where Sasagi became the third player in as many minutes to knock it on. Hughes smashed over Crossland, Brandon took a dart up the middle, and Munster’s kick came off Clifford and back to Kenny Bromwich.
This would have been the next try if Kenny hadn’t lobbed it a few metres forward to an unmarked Meaney on the wing, but the Knights didn’t do much with the restart, as Chris Randall ended with a dummy half kick that had no business in first grade. Grant now had his best moment of the match, drifting across the defence and breaking away from Crossland to boot the ball deep in goal, where Lee looked certain to bring it back into play only for Grant to chase it down and force the dropout with the most inspired low tackle of the night.
It was a terrific sequel to (and intensification of) his hit on Klemmer, and Paps responded in kind with his best footwork, flicking the footy back in to Meaney just before he was bumped into touch halfway through the restart. Still, it wasn’t the strongest Melbourne set, partly because the Storm had slightly fragmented into so many individual entrepreneurs looking for ever-more creative ways to extend the scoreline. Coates didn’t help under the high ball, losing it forward for Clifford to scoop up and get Best twenty metres up the left sideline.
Even so, the Storm got the ball back, and plugged the gap pretty staunchly, as Clifford headed off the park for an injury and Crossland slotted into the five-eighth role. Papenhuyzen had been restless to break through Ponga up the left all afternoon, and while he didn’t make it on this next set, he took on the line and gave the Newcastle fullback his biggest challenge so far – and his biggest platform to shine, since Ponga now delivered a missile-like legs tackle that, in any other game, would have steeled his men to a special play late in the count.
As if prescient of that very fact, Grant ended with a deception chip, sliding it off the right padding and back in goal, where Tepai Moeroa dove on it for his first NRL try since the 2019 Parra-Brisbane 58-0 finals landslide. We weren’t so far away from that scoreline now, as Paps added the extras to make it 36-2 with well over a quarter of football to go. Yet the Storm got a blow early in the restart, when Brandon Smith was downed in backplay with an apparent wrist injury after big contact with Saifiti, although he was eventually cleared to remain.
The Knights started to extemporise on their next set, but it all ended with a one-on-one steal from Jesse Bromwich, while Coates provided them with an object lesson in how to self-correct by reining in an overlong ball on the wing, and Munster made it two straight strips on play one of the next Newcastle set. The Melbourne machine now tightened again, as Jesse Bromwich popped a very late offload out to Grant, who pivoted in front of the posts, and looked set to cross himself before shifting some third phase out for Munster to take control.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Munster now crystallised his visionary season into one of his best pieces of play. He’d also done well to wrench the footy from Ponga at the moment the other defenders pulled back from the tackle, leaving the Newcastle fullback utterly dishevelled, and now he channelled Hughes’ mercurial pause before the Coates sideline assist. Turning 180 degrees to face his own try line, he swung out a perfect arc for Meaney, who took it on the wing and had just enough space to swerve in through Tuala and Frizell.
Papenhuyzen’s conversion put Newcastle last on the live ladder, while bringing the Storm to a forty point lead with a quarter of footy on the clock. Grant now headed off for a well-earned rest, while Tyrone Wishart had a rough start off the bench with a fumbled dummy half pass. Jack Johns was also on his first game of the season, and took a run immediately to steady the Newcastle attack, before Crossland had a dress rehearsal for next week’s halves stint by attempting to take control up the middle. In the end, it all came down to a Clune kick.
Coates took it on the full, the Storm survived NAS’s contact on Clune, and Melbourne were second on the live ladder, in the upper echelons (181) with Penrith (150), a long way above a resurgent Cowboys outfit (82). Sasagi now continued his mini-feud on Olam by coming in low, while Tuala did the work on top to force the knock-on, and the Storm wasted their challenge attempting to contest it, as if knowing just how hard Craig Bellamy would ride them if they conceded a Newcastle try now.
Ponga got past Munster on tackle one, in search of his form from the start of the season, and Klemmer followed in the same part of the park a play later, flicking an offload back for Crossland to start a shift to the left, before taking control in the centre of the park as well. No sooner had the Knights nabbed a much-needed restart than Klem failed to get the second phase away again, before Crossland drastically mistimed a wide ball to the right edge, where Tuala was powerless to stop the footy from sliding into touch.
By this stage, the Knights had made virtually every mistake possible, so they had to score at least one try for pride as the last ten minutes arrived. Ponga made two more incursions up the left edge – the first a run that ended with Reimis Smith executing a big individual tackle on Brodie Jones; the second a deft kick, with little room to spare, that Paps nevertheless cleared up on the left touchline, before Ponga himself slammed in to try and shut him down, and appeared to have suffered a right arm injury in the process.
The contrast couldn’t be starker with the next set, when Melbourne delivered another clinical sweep, this time to the right edge, as a series of pinpoint passes from Hughes, Munster, Bromwich and Olam put Meaney into space. The result was inexorable, as Meaney hit the Newcastle thirty and shifted it back inside to Munster, who had clear sailing all the way for the line, where he shimmied away from Lee at the death to provide Paps with a slightly easier angle to make it 113 points for the year, aeons ahead of Moses at 73 and Holmes at 71.
With five minutes on the clock, the Knights were staring down only the third back-to-back tryless sequence in club history, after 2016 and 1990, so it was critical they put down four before the final siren. They’d only scored 26 points in their last five games, and didn’t get anything off a Klemmer left-boot kick that drew cheers from the crowd, before action shifted back down the other end where we got a Gasnier-Inglis flashback when Clifford missed a Hughes kick behind the line, and Wishart made up for his error in the most spectacular way.
Sailing over the dead ball line, he flicked the footy back infield without hitting touch, keeping it live for Papenhuyzen to put down. Paps didn’t make it, but got the penalty off an obstruction, and rubbed salt in the wound by booting through the two to make it statistically impossible for the Knights to win the comp in 2022. It was the last note of the match, and the symbolism wasn’t lost on Ponga, who looked grim, or O’Brien, who had his head in his hands, so both men will have to dig deep to take on a revived North Queensland next Saturday.
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