ROUND 11: Newcastle Knights v. Brisbane Broncos (McDonald Jones Stadium, 19/5/22, 12-36)

Last week’s win over the Sea Eagles was a spiritual rebirth for the Broncos. They’d already had great moments with Adam Reynolds at the helm, but they glimpsed the greatest echoes of their heyday with this particular victory, forged in the fire of Magic Round, which allowed them to claim their ownership over the biggest Suncorp event of the year more decisively than ever before. It begged the question – what new heights could they reach against a Newcastle outfit desperate to get back on the front foot?

It was a big anticlimax, at first, when Reyno was ruled out on game day, bringing Ezra Mam in to debut at halfback, and yet that just made this match extraordinary in a different kind of way. Not only did Brisbane hold their own against a Knights outfit that had Tyson Frizell back on the park, and Anthony Milford donning the blue and red for his first footy since Round 25 2021, but they dominated the last quarter with back-to-back-to-back tries, before Herbie Farnworth turned a Newcastle scrum four seconds out into a sublime intercept putdown.

This final quarter, in particular, was the latest chapter in a Brisbane epic that escalates exponentially each week. If Reyno showed the Bunnies what they’d lost in Round 9, and proved how thoroughly he could reinvent himself as a Brisbane icon in round 10, then tonight we learned that the team can summon his presence even when he’s not on the park. Selwyn Cobbo, in particular, continued to shine, making it nine tries in five games, while Corey Oates also scored a double to become second top scorer of the season after Ryan Papenhuyzen.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was a sobering evening for Newcastle, who seemed to slip back into their darkest days, or even Brisbane’s darkest days, given Milford’s team switch, as they faced down yet another agonising home loss. It was made worse by two highly contentious calls – a denied try for Dane Gagai in the first stanza, and a clear obstruction in the buildup to the Cobbo putdown that got the Broncos rolling in the back quarter – but this couldn’t explain it all for the Knights, who need a big one against the Warriors next week.

Brisbane got to the forty on their first set, where Tyson Gamble took the first kick, before Kalyn Ponga took the kick, dummied, broke up the left and got his men into Brisbane territory on the very first carry. They were inside the twenty a tackle later, as Milford made space for Tyson Frizell, who was a bit rusty for his first run back, and fumbled the play-the-ball just as Newcastle were cresting. The Broncos had a scrum feed instead of a defensive set on their own line, and Payne Haas made big post-contacts early in the count.

Combined with a Patrick Carrigan offload to Billy Walters, this set the platform for Brisbane to cross into Knights territory for Gamble’s next kick. Once again, though, the hosts got a bump back down the park, thanks to a Jensen offside, as David Klemmer took a very flat pass from Adam Clune to bring them towards the ten, and Haas had a second big play to land the kick right on the line, as a Chris Randall offside got Brisbane their first tackle at the thirty. Haas kept eating metres, and they were over halfway with a Kotoni Staggs dash on play two.

Haas lost the footy a moment later, into a Milford tackle, but a successful Brisbane challenge showed that it moved backwards before Gamble scooped it up, and that Haas hadn’t knocked it on at any point. This could have been an early swing in the Broncos’ favour, so Edrick Lee did well to take the next high ball on the full, leaving a huge divot in the McDonald Jones turf – bigger than anything we saw during Magic Round – in his effort to work it off his own line and build his men some decent field position.

Meanwhile, Kurt Capewell was getting medical attention for what looked like a reprisal of his neck injury, as Saifiti and Frizell converged on Carrigan to get the knock-on that eluded them last set. Brisbane would have done well to send it upstairs here, but they opted to let Newcastle pack the scrum, as Herbie Farnworth plunged in to prevent Dane Gagai doing much damage on play one, which made it even more spectacular when Milford took his first enterprising charge up the right, paving the way for the first six again of the evening.

It came off a Jensen ruck error, and provided the Knights with the first sustained close-range set, as Milf continued to deliver by feigning to grubber on the third, and so leaving space for Clune to execute the first assist kick of the night out on the short side. After such a staggered approach to the Brisbane line, this was as simple as they come – Clune threaded it through the line, Ezra Mam reached out an arm but couldn’t rein it in, and Frizell chased it down to ground the first try of the night to mark his return to the Newcastle thirteen.

Ponga added the two to make it six unanswered points, while the Broncos lost their second big offseason signing when Capewell left the park, with what turned out to be a right eye injury, rather than a further neck complaint. The Knights now started to really coast, as Fitzgibbon came in for a massive hit on Gamble, and Milford extemporised again up the right edge, building space for Ponga to execute an eccentric chip and chase, angling the footy straight at the defence, than dodging the Brisbane line to rein it in with one hand.

If Randall had taken Ponga’s offload he would have had clear sailing to the chalk, but his drop wasn’t enough to dent this escalating Newcastle flow. Lee might have failed to secure the next high ball, but the replay showed he never even made contact on the first shot, while the Knights got a penalty a beat later when Carrigan found himself offside in the ten. Milford capped off the set by mirroring Ponga’s ingenuity with the boot up the right, popping through a grubber that Farnworth had no option but to bang into touch.

With 18-9 tackles in the opposition half, and 9-0 tackles in the opposition twenty, Newcastle were really rolling now. Only a massive three-man pack, spearheaded by Selwyn Cobbo, prevented Bradman Best from crossing over off a Ponga pass, and even then they never quite got him to ground, only forcing him to his knees as he prepared for a rapid play-the-ball. Sensing things weren’t done on that left edge, Ponga headed back in that direction as soon as possible, with a short ball that initially looked like a certain Lachlan Fitzgibbon assist.

Yet it was immediately called no try, and for good reason, since the front-on replay showed that Gamble and Staggs had done the job to force a knock-on on the way down. This was good clinical defence, and for a moment the match swung back in Brisbane’s direction, as Gagai was caught offside in the ten, and Fitzgibbon conceded six again. With Reynolds on the park, this could easily have produced a points, and a bigger shift in the shape of the game, but Mam showed his inexperience with a knock-on just as Brisbane were glimpsing some space.

Still, the Broncos did well to prevent Newcastle escalating to quite the same point as the set that preceded the frustrated Fitzgibbon putdown. For a moment, Clune looked set to restore the flow, with a long grubber straight in Frizell’s direction, but Farnworth got on his bike, going shoulder to shoulder with big Tyson to ensure he never got clean possession, before Corey Oates made up for the second effort that got the Knights back down Brisbane’s end in the first place by scooping up the Steeden and making thirty for the Broncos’ first break.

Add to that a Frizell penalty, Capewell’s return to the park, and a Milford ruck error, and it felt like the Broncos might take control of the last fifteen minutes before the break if they made the most of this burst of field position. In the end, they didn’t need the six again, since Milf’s mistake was folded into a brilliantly clutchy try sequence, starting with a frantic play-the-ball from Capewell. Mam took it, Milford grabbed him round the waist, Frizell came in for the ankle tap, and the tackle seemed complete.

Instead, Mam marked his debut with the lowest and latest offload of the year, turning around on the turf, while avoiding bringing the footy to ground, and shooting it back up to Walters, who ricocheted off Ponga and Mitch Barnett, and lost the ball for a brief moment, only to regather it without making contact with either defender. From there, the putdown was guaranteed, and while it wasn’t the prettiest sequence, it put Brisbane level at 6-6 once Staggs added the extras, an impressive achievement in the absence of Reyno’s leadership.

The two freshest players in the Newcastle squad did well at the end of the next set, as Milford ran it and then shifted it across for Gagai to boot back in field. Yet Brisbane were more confident with these rapid last-tackle assaults now, as Cobbo reined in the footy in the face of a volatile bounce. Ponga didn’t do as well at the other end of the park, where he never quite got low enough, or circled rapidly enough, to clean up the grubber as it careened unpredictably along the divot-laden McDonald Jones surface.

The Broncos got more space off another Milford error, but it didn’t produce points this time, while a Thomas Flegler penalty for holding down led to the first contentious moment of the match. It started with Newcastle’s best left-right sweep, as Clune made space for Milford to boot another dummy out to the right edge, where Oates came up with an even more confounding circular chase than Ponga, misreading the trajectory of the Steeden so dramatically that he was only able to reach out his right arm to tip it at the death.

Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Gagai got in place to gather up the footy, withstand Martin as last line of defence, and reach out his right hand to get it down – or so it seemed. For the Bunker determined that Dane had lost control on the way down, a pretty mercurial reading, since the replay only showed him rolling the point of contact from his upper to lower hand in an effort to ensure the secure grounding. In effect, the Bunker had determined that  the bottom of his thumb didn’t turn quite enough to make this a four-pointer.

It was a real rhythm-killer for Newcastle, who were lucky that it came before the break, since with only a few minutes the Broncos didn’t have time to seize the momentum after a pair of mistakes from Carrigan and Riki. Lee got an awkward bounce for the first ball back, and did well to slide to ground to take it right under the ribs, although Oates did one better under the next kick, busting through the line off the return, and carving his way up the middle, until Ponga downed him halfway up the park.

Staggs followed with a bullocking run up the right to bounce off Best and reach the ten, before a Fletcher offload to Carrigan got the Broncs in position for a left sweep that ended with Haas missing the pass to Capewell, and forcing Farnworth to scramble in to clean up the footy. Gamble ended with a kick to the right, Staggs knocked it back, and Brisbane played hot potato with the ball, eventually sending it back to the left, where Mam had the right instinct to grubber it into the wing, but didn’t get the correct angle, leaving Ponga room to clean it up.

This was one of those moments when Reyno’s absence really hurt, and yet the sheer restlessness of this set (and the last play in particular, when the ball changed hands six or seven times) felt like money in the bank for Brisbane, proof they had enough flow bottled up if they could only unleash it. They got their next shot when Clune went for a 40/20 but booted it over the back line to give away seven tackles, and Mam continued to enterprise, collecting a Farnworth offload, getting past Barnett, and making two metres through Ponga’s tackle.

For a moment, it looked like the Broncos would make good on their last left edge raid, as Capewell seized the Steeden out of dummy half, saw Oates on his outside, and promptly sent the ball over the sideline. Nevertheless, Cobbo continued to dig into this newfound flow by reprising Oates’ run out of dummy half on the next kick return, making it 6-2 linebreaks for Brisbane, before Young lost the footy on the kick, and a touch got the Broncos another six tackles to make good on this steady accumulation of position.

After two failed options on the left edge, they visitors seemed to sense that the best strategy was to run it hard and fast, as Hetherington took a charge beside the left post, Martin did the same on the right, Palasia followed up the middle, and the Broncs half-heartedly experimented with one more left edge attack that ended with Young jamming in on Farnworth. They needed an individual play, and Gamble provided it by drifting and shaping for a kick up the right, only to hand it to Riki to cruise through a hole for the next four points.

This was precisely the direct try that Brisbane needed, and Riki continued to lift them by playing a pivotal role in the best pack defence of the night a set later, when he came in under Best to prevent him spinning the Steeden to ground, as his team mates piled in on top. Milford tried to reset the rhythm with another grubber on the right edge, Oates cleaned it up in goal, and reached his arm back into the field of play after he was downed by Gagai and Clune, but the question of dropout was moot, since the Knights got six more off a Farnworth escort.

Frizell glimpsed space on the third, but was held up by Hetherington and Carrington, Ponga extemporised with a wide ball to Best, and Lee was bumped into touch on play three. It was one of the biggest anticlimaxes of the night, and all the more painful for the Hunter faithful when Best came off the park immediately, with a dislocated elbow, after tumbling beneath the sweep and defence as they cascaded over the sideline. No surprise, then, that the home crowd were baying for blood when Gamble claimed pressure from Jacob Saifiti a set later.

Gamble was totally right, since this was poor contact any day of the week, but that didn’t make it any less emotional for a Newcastle fanbase that have suffered a series of dispiriting home defeats in 2022. Staggs added the extras to put the Broncs beyond a converted try lead, and while he and Riki, the last two big playmakers, followed with a pair of errors, Oates stripped the footy from Milford on play one, making it doubly agonising when Gamble flicked it forward two tackles into the subsequent set.

This had been the most volatile period of possession all night, bringing us to peak suspense as the final quarter arrived. With not a single linebreak since the break, the Knights needed their custodian to step up here – and that’s just what he did, redeeming Newcastle’s 257 run metres (to Brisbane’s 504) since the sheds by linking up with his 257 Collective podcast mate. Showcasing the sublime footwork that made him a star, Ponga took a short ball from Mat Croker, got away from Riki, and pivoted off the left boot to swerve past Martin.

All he had to do was accelerate to cross untouched beside the right post, before adding the extras to bring us to a two-point game. Yet just as Cobbo had continued the momentum of Oates’ kick return burst after the break, now he restored Brisbane’s rhythm by breaking into space for a second time off the high ball, planting the fend of his life into Ponga’s face out on the right edge to ensure he reached the Newcastle forty by the time he was brought to ground. It was the run the Broncos needed to steel themselves for one final surge of points.

They didn’t get them off their next dropout, due to a Hetherington error, but that just gave them a breather before they proceeded to close out the game with back-to-back-to-back tries. The first started with Staggs’ best play of the night – straight into open space, up the right, where he skittled Clune with a massive fend, and delivered about as perfect a dummy as you’ll ever see. Gripping the Steeden in both hands, he showed it so fast it seemed like he had to pass, before pulling it back to make room for Cobbo to get in place for the catch.

Cobbo’s take was a poetic contrast – delicate as Staggs’ possession had been airtight – as he reined it in with the right hand, before rising from a Young ankle tap and making his way to the line. There was a question of an obstruction in backplay, and the replay seemed to confirm it, but in the second contentious sequence of the night, the Bunker claimed that Martin had caught the footy on the inside of Clune and Riki, but passed it on to Staggs before running behind them – and the home crowd were ropeable as Kotoni booted through the two.

This was also one of the more volatile turning-points of the season, since it fuelled the Broncos into three more tries that probably wouldn’t have occurred (or occurred with the same sublime flow) if the Bunker had come up with the correct call here. These three tries (the first two of which occurred back-to-back) were like a microcosm of Brisbane’s journey to a top four berth, which was all the more extraordinary in that Reyno was off the park, although present in spirit, as he watched on with Kevvy in the coaches’ box.

The first was one of the more extraordinary team tries of recent years, and started with Cobbo knocking the kick back on the right side of the park. Riki reached out his right arm for another tap, Paix lost it, but lost it backwards, and Gamble landed on it, before sending a bouncer out to the other side of the field. This ushered in the second part of this scintillating sequence, as Capewell scooped it up, fed it on to Farnworth, looped back around to take it again, fended off Milford, and then popped it out for Mam to take a second kick.

It was a dazzling reminder of what the ex-Panther brings to the stable, but the young gun was just as good, as Mam lobbed it off the side of his left boot, getting just enough unpredictability on the bounce to defy Phoenix Crossland, who thought he had more than enough time until Oates swerved in to slam the Steeden down. Staggs added another two, the Broncos hit 24, and Oates was now equal with Xavier Coates and Taylan May for second most tries of the season (10), only two behind Ryan Papenhuyzen at 12.

It was an instant classic team try, while the next putdown was just as reflective of Brisbane’s resurgence in 2022. This four-pointer was as clinical and sharp as the last was expansive and experimental – a terrific ball from Haas to Gamble, who set up Martin for a harbour bridge ball that cleared even Edrick Lee to land on Riki’s chest for a clinical try in the right corner. Staggs now missed the kick, and the game started to wind down, so it felt impossible that the Broncos could do anything more when Newcastle got the scrum four seconds out.

Yet in a play that crystallised this sublime fourth quarter surge, Farnworth intercepted Milford on the last tackle of the night, right as the siren rang out, and cruised all the way to the line. By this stage it wasn’t about scoring points, or even adding to Brisbane’s competition tally – it was about identifying themselves with the siren, the field, the sport, in a way that hasn’t happened for years. For this brought Brisbane to a top four berth in the most spectacular way, promising a reconfiguration of the rugby league landscape round them in the weeks to come.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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