ROUND 19: Newcastle Knights v. Sydney Roosters (McDonald Jones Stadium, 22/7/22, 12-42)

The Knights may have trounced Sydney pretty convincingly in Round 1, but we were at a very different point in the season by the time Friday night’s game in the Hunter came around. Newcastle had really struggled at home in 2022, and were staring down the possibility of conceding forty in three straight games for the first time in club history, so Kalyn Ponga needed a blistering appearance and visionary leadership – a reprise of his magnificent performance in Origin III after his intermittent brilliance against Manly the week before.

Instead, he was taken from the park at the eighth minute after copping a concussion off a Matt Lodge tackle, while Dane Gagai, the man who had contributed so much to that Round 1 victory over the Chooks, was binned for dissent in the fourth quarter, during which time the visitors put down three tries to break the forty-point mark. It was a resounding way for the Roosters to make their way back into the eight for the first time in over a month, and a good welcome back for Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, after doing in his hamstring in Round 12.

The ripple effect of losing Ponga, and the exhaustion of defending a Sydney outfit intent on cementing a berth in finals footy, meant that the Knights didn’t hit first gear until the last ten minutes, when they scored their only two tries of the game back-to-back. While that somewhat mitigated the splendour of the Roosters’ victory, it was too little too late – more a way of building belief in the leadup to next week’s game against a trotting Bulldogs outfit than a reflection of this match, which also marked Luke Keary’s long-awaited return to the park.

Lodge took the first hit-up, Daniel Tupou followed in his wake to break the twenty, and JWH anchored this opening set with a strong carry on tackle three, before Victor Radley arrived at the brink of halfway, and Edrick Lee took Sam Walker’s kick. JWH was a little rusty on the return, or just a bit too enthusiastic, crowding Edrick to give Newcastle the first attacking opportunity of the game. They were inside the red zone with two tackles to spare, thanks to some deft Tyson Frizell footwork, where they got six again off a Sam Verrills ruck error.

After a Mitch Barnett settler on the left edge, Lachlan Fitzgibbon tried to find space further out on the wing, only for Joseph Suaalii to intercept it and make it all the back into Newcastle territory, where he popped it across to Teddy for what would have been a certain try if Frizell hadn’t been as adept at defending his twenty as breaking the Roosters red zone. Coming from all the way up field, he downed the Sydney fullback, and while the Knights didn’t make much position on the next set, they got another bump of position off a pretty marginal penalty.

Angus Crichton didn’t do much more than graze Anthony Milford’s head after the kick, but it was enough for Ponga to slot through the two from a very tight angle, about fourteen metres in from touch. In doing so, he leaped ahead of Akuila Uate’s 440 to become the third most prolific pointscorer for Newcastle, although he was still a long way behind the hallowed ground of Kurt Gidley (1228) and Andrew Johns (2176). David Klemmer and JWH now made big contact on play one of the restart, and Lee copped big contact on tackle two as well.  

The Roosters were clearly determined, then, to prevent the Knights from making it out of their own end for a third successive set, but Lodge wasn’t able to match Jared’s dexterity, hanging a lazy arm into Ponga’s face in what turned out to be a far more catastrophic result for the home team. For these would be the last minutes that Kalyn played for some time, due to the risk of further concussions, as Phoenix Crossland left the bench, and the Knights tried to bounce back with yet another foray into the Sydney City twenty.

They focused mainly on the right edge, as Milford almost found space on the wing, and Daniel Saifiti carried a couple of defenders from ten to five metres out, but Keary got the footy back at the end of it all, and compounded it by winning the Roosters’ first penalty of the night off some holding down from Jayden Brailey. The Chooks had to capitalise quickly on this shift in momentum, so they swept it out to the right across the third and fourth plays, where even a good Paul Momirovski step couldn’t elude the defence, before Walker chipped to the left.

This had been the most assured Sydney set so far, but it didn’t quite come together now, as Tupou tapped it up high, but with nobody in place to prevent it tumbling into touch. The Giraffe’s night got more frustrating at the end of the next set, when he was forced to clean up an early Milford kick behind the line in the face of a committed combined chase from Frizell and Gagai. Teddy went short with the dropout, but just ended up conceding more position to the Knights, as Klem hit JWH, and Crossland started a sweep to the left.

It didn’t get beyond Milford and Fitzgibbon, as play paused mid-set for Nat Butcher to get an HIA on the instruction of the independent doctor, bringing Connor Watson on earlier than expected to front up against his former home ground, boos ringing out from every part of McDonald Jones. Frizell followed Tupou with a clutch play on the wing, standing for an age in the tackle, and risking a very late offload, only to sent it over the sideline. They’d enjoyed 75% of possession, but the Knights were still unable to get four on the board to show for it.

There was a risk, then, that the rhythm could shift back in Sydney’s direction now, so it was surprising when Teddy came up with an uncharacteristic knock-on early in the next set, giving the Knights another bout of opposition territory to make good on their massive advantages in position. This time the clutchy play came on the left, where Suaalii just prevented Lee crossing over, but with big Edrick avoiding touch, and Radley pinged for a late tackle, this turned into another consolidation period for Newcastle – until Milford flicked it forward.

Both teams had now made errors just when they needed to be capitalising, so the game seemed to reset itself as Sydney packed the scrum, and news came down that Ponga wouldn’t be returning from the sheds. Accordingly, the Roosters finally found their flow, as Watson marked his early stint off the bench, and used the aggro from his former club, to make his team’s first linebreak and assist of the night. Dummying a couple of times in his own end, he busted through a last-ditch Clune tackle, swivelled around Gagai, and hit open space.

He had to dummy a couple more times to accommodate Keary, who had slightly over-run his line, but pulled back in time to take the pass and bang over untouched, bringing the Roosters to a four-point lead once Tedesco added the extras. If anything, Keary’s initial misjudgement with the run made the putdown more spectacular, since it recapitulated his comeback in miniature, ushering in his first great kick of the game at the end of the restart as well – a pinpoint effort to trap Milford deep in the left corner, and start resetting the position deficit.

After spending so much of the game intruding into the Roosters’ twenty, the Knights now had most of this set inside their own red zone, while it was the visitors who spent the majority of their set in the opposition twenty as the second quarter arrived. Crichton hit the footy at speed to glimpse a break off a Keary ball, while Teddy took inspiration from Keary with a sneaky kick into the left padding that Barnett did well to catch on the fly. Yet with an Egan Butcher offside, Newcastle reglimpsed their opening flow, and did pretty well off it.

Clune now showed Teddy he could boot them just as well, trapping the Sydney custodian behind the line with the best chip kick of the night, as Hymel Hunt slammed in to close down any ingress back to the field of play. Klemmer was at the twenty by tackle two, and Saifiti at the ten by tackle four, but once again the left edge sweep fell apart, as Enari Tuala responded to a silky pair of passes from Clune and Crossland with an awkward catch-and-pass that Lee was never going to take on the ground, especially given his own Giraffe-like stature.

Things now accelerated for the Roosters, as Fitzgibbon was called offside immediately, and Brailey got done for marker error halfway up the park, giving JWH the chance to take tackle one inside the Newcastle red zone. They got six again a play later, off a Crossland ruck error, and finally felt as if they’d matched the Knights’ flow of the first quarter, even if Teddy was unable to do much with a short side play from Keary out on the left. In a microcosm of this tightly fought game, Lee glimpsed a sublime long-ranger, before the Chooks finally scored.

For a moment, the set looked like it might disintegrate, as Egan Butcher lobbed back a chaotic offload, Walker took it on the bounce, and channelled that awkward movement into an even more speculative pass down field. If Lee had captured it here, he would have had seventy-five metres of clear sailing to the Sydney City line, but instead Momirovski came up with it, thinking quick to shift it on to Teddy, who only had to dummy a couple of times to put Suaalii across on the right wing, where he became top tryscorer of the Roosters’ 2022 season.

That was a pretty impressive achievement in only thirteen games, good enough to eclipse a missed kick from Walker. Just as Keary’s slight misread of Watson’s run had made the try even better, the precarious passage of play between Butcher and Walker made the crispness of the Teddy-Suaalii combo hit different too – it was like seeing the Roosters regather their messier opening quarter in a single scintillating sequence. Klemmer and Barnett might have been cresting the VB Hard Earned Index, but there was no doubt Sydney was on top now.

That’s not to say they weren’t making errors, but that they were bouncing back quicker, and doing more with opposition mistakes. Verrills may have flicked it forward on the next set, but Barnett responded with the most painful cold drop of the game on tackle two, which was all that Sydney needed to put down one of the critical consolidators of the night. They got rolling on play one of the scrum, burning their way up the right edge for Teddy to hit the ten, before bringing it back to their star fullback for a try beneath Walker’s chip kick.

Now it was Suaalii’s turn to provide the assist, as he outleaped Lee on the right edge, and offloaded out of a Crossland tackle for Teddy to bust over the line with Milford barely getting a hand to him. The whole sequence was pure class, pure professionalism, bringing the Chooks to a 16-2 lead once Walker booted it through from right in front. You couldn’t even blame Lee, or Milford, since Sydney City were simply playing at a different level here, which Keary continued on the restart with an early kick to keep Milf on his ten in the face of the chase.

In that light, Newcastle did quite well to almost reach halfway, thanks to some more staunch work from the indefatigable Klemmer, as Saifiti subbed on for Saifiti, and Pasami Saulo did well to hold up a near-break on the left. Yet that just supercharged the Roosters, as Teddy took a late low midfield offload from Keary, dummied and schemed his way up the right edge, and only came to ground beneath a desperate Milford tackle, so it was a big let-off when Crichton couldn’t pull off the same second phase vision, as Milf once again saved the day.

By this stage, the Roosters were looking a little rogue, keen to bend protocol to cement their lead before the break, as Verrills came in high on Clune under the next kick, and was pretty lucky, all things considered, not to be sent to the bin for his troubles. Two minutes out from the siren, the Knights had a flashback to their positional achievements of the first quarter, and while the Chooks stayed strong, they couldn’t put down any more points off the last scrum, which came from a Crossland error, taking them into the sheds still on 16-2.

Jacob Saifiti took the first run back, and the Knights moved it methodically up the park, making about ten metres a carry, albeit decelerating before halfway, forcing Milf to take the kick in his own end. Conversely, the Roosters got a full set in Newcastle’s end immediately, thanks to a marker error from Saulo in the face of a tackle two run from Tupou. Radley played the ball right on the halfway line, and Momirovski and Teddy set up another scintillating right sweep that saw Suaalii almost back his way through Enari Tuala to score in the corner.

Egan Butcher parlayed that same balletic movement into the most elegant offload of the game back infield, where Radley would have put it down right beneath the crossbars if he hadn’t hit the footy a little too hard. The resultant fumble should have been a turnaround for the Knights, but instead Clune flicked it forward to Gagai early in the count. Sydney started their last set at halfway, and now they fed the scrum forty out, as Teddy leaned back into that right edge momentum, but found Tuala determined to hold his ground this time.

As a result, the Chooks had to experiment on the left for a bit, before Radley regathered from his error with a steadying run, and Walker ended with a strangely underwhelming kick – a shallow chip that provided the Knights with their first real rhythm since the break. Milford booted his next one on the cusp of halfway, a wobbler that Suaalii absorbed with no problems, although the hang time had cleared space for one of the stronger chases since the break, giving Newcastle a glimpse of the position they’d accrued in the first quarter. 

It was only a glimpse, however, since not only did the Roosters deliver their best acceleration since the break, thanks in part to a rapid Verrills play-the-ball halfway up the park, but they scored their next try. Again, they targeted the right edge, and again, the Knights seemed to stay strong, almost wrapping up Walker when he got the ball, but a late low offload, and a clutchy sweep back infield, set up Keary for a soaring boot to the other side of the park, where Tupou was always going to win the aerial contest with Hunt to secure the four.

With this sequence, the Tricolours had claimed control of both sides of the park, while Tupou’s 125th putdown inched him that little bit closer to Anthony Minichiello’s Sydney City record of 139. Walker added a deft kick, but the Roosters didn’t get a chance to go back to back, as JWH put it down early in the count, gifting Newcastle the best field position for either side since the break. Not even a scrum from the ten could help them here, however, as a wall of red, white and blue jerseys prevented them getting within five of the line.

Clune was shut down before he could get boot to ball, forcing Milf to extemporise a grubber on the right, where Tupou scooped it up and made twenty-five to put the visitors back on the front foot again. By the time Keary took his own kick, they were nearly back at the Newcastle red zone, so the Knights were on the grind again, following their worst short-range set of the game with one of their poorest long-range efforts. No sooner had Tuala broken into Sydney territory than he coughed it up, as Barnett took out his frustration with a strip on JWH.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Roosters made good on their right edge energy for the first time since the break, thanks to some nice dummy half vision from Verrills, who sized up the park in a glance, popping it out for his captain to set up the catch-and-pass assist from Momirovski that put Suaalii over in the corner for a double. This was probably the key consolidation effort of the second stanza, not so much because it put the Chooks 24 ahead after Walker missed the kick, but because they’d made such vivid use of their opportunities.

That was something the Knights had failed to do, even though they’d still had the best position since the sheds with that scrum from the ten. At peak footy flow, the Roosters were starting to relax into a more experimental form of play, or at least a more relaxed outlook, as Suaalii risked a clutchy offload to Verrills that paid off early in the next set, galvanising the Knights into one of their best accumulations of position in response. They were over halfway by tackle four, setting up Clune for his best bomb since the break, deep into the right corner.

Egan Butcher now left the park for a well-deserved rest, bringing Lodge off the bench for another stint, while Milf had settled into a good groove on the kick returns, one of which had led to that last advance in position. They did even better a set later, as Frizell rared for a break, and Clune got boot to ball even further up field, forcing Walker to clean it up inside his ten. For the first time in this second stanza, the Chooks struggled to work it out of their own end – until Lodge won a flop off Clune to bump them back into Newcastle territory once more.

The Knights were now sitting at 0-3 penalties in the back half, so it was a pretty big momentum-killer when Gagai copped a fourth one for verbal dissent that got him sent to the bin, as tensions rose on field after a late shot from Frizell on Keary. Finally, the Roosters had a set right on the opposition line, and the result couldn’t have been more difference from Newcastle’s scrum at the ten – an immediate consolidation, off the best spine synergy from Sydney City so far, as well as the best vision from Tedesco in an already stellar game.

Keary and Walker got their skipper in place on the left, where he double pumped, ran into the line, and offloaded around the front of Clune’s tackle to set up Tupou to cross untouched. It was a sublime trio of plays, true captain’s vision, not least because of how precisely Teddy targeted the space where Gagai would normally have been defending. Walker missed his second straight conversion, but even so the Chooks were sitting at an imposing 30-2 lead, while Gagai had to be sweating after Brandon Smith’s three week sanction for dissent.

To their credit, the Knights rallied on the restart, delivering some of their strongest defence of the second stanza, but it barely bothered the Roosters, who made it deep into Newcastle’s end after Crichton stood in the tackle and popped an assured offload out for Radley to continue his trajectory. The Chooks had only kept a team to single digits once this year, in their superb 28-4 trouncing of the Cowboys back in Round 4, so this was looking to be one of their strongest scorelines of the season if they could keep the Knights to two.

In the end, Newcastle would manage to put down two more tries, getting their first glimpse of this brief comeback with another Verrills dummy half forward pass a set later. By this stage, however, the hosts needed multiple opportunities to capitalise, as Brailey put it down midway through the following set, and Fitzgibbon stepped into the captain’s role to send up a challenge that was never going to be ratified. Conversely, this one error was all it took for Sydney to score their second try since Gagai was sent to the bin.

Once again, they targeted the space that Dane would have defended, in a theme and variations on their last magnificent trip to the left. Again, too, the halves set it up, but this time Walker popped the catch-and-pass out to Crichton, who parlayed his barging strength into a ballet-like effort to twirl and pivot through a last-ditch Frizell ankle tap before swerving off the left boot to slide past Milford at the death. Walker’s kick wasn’t his prettiest, but it did the job, and in any case was totally eclipsed by the precision of Crichton’s vision here.

It was eclipsed even more dramatically by the Roosters’ best and last try on the restart –  a sequence that seemed to crystallise all their best moments tonight. Lodge started by showing his value, launching into the Newcastle line, where he was lifted in the tackle, but managed to twist around and reach out his right hand to give Teddy some second phase before he was dumped to earth. Tedesco now reached full GOAT mode, mirroring Crichton’s left boot pivot with a right foot effort to elude a Brailey ankle tap and bust into space.

Great fullbacks claim ownership of the park with these kind of breaks, and so it was with Teddy, who seemed to have preordained the try from the moment he accelerated, flicking it out for Walker to condense the game into a scintillating spectacle – edging his way inexorably ahead of Crossland, and then cantlivering off a big left hand fend to mirror Teddy’s second phase with a right-handed offload for Egan Butcher, who capped off one of the best games of his career by reaching up both arms over his head to take it clean, and slam over for four.

The Roosters were back in the eight, while for the first time in club history the Knights had conceded forty or more in three straight games, so they had to score a few for pride now. Crossland, in particular, had to make up for that chase on Keary, which had crystallised Sydney’s acceleration beyond the Knights a particularly pointed way. He proved himself up to the task on the very next red and blue set, when he set up Lee for a mad dash down the left, an echo of the early aborted intercept, before eluding a Butcher ankle tap to score himself.

This was an important hitback , and the Knights made an even bigger statement on the restart, when Saulo came within a millimetre of the line, only for Clune to misdirect a pass back to the left a beat later. Between these two plays lay Newcastle’s frustrated potential tonight, so it was doubly cathartic when Gagai responded to the three tries scored in his absence by scooping up the Steeden after it flew past Milford, and saving the day with one of the best crossfield runs of the night, eventually reaching Crossland who set up Tuala for the last assist.

Not only did the Knights come up with a left edge try to match Sydney’s superb efforts on the same wing, but Lee came full circle with the early intercept attempt by being the man to put it down. Newcastle had saved their best football for last, and retained possession to the final siren, thanks to a nonstop sequence of errors and penalties from the Roosters, suddenly exhausted by the achievement of 42 points. Even so, the Knights need a big one against the Dogs next week, while the Chooks will be keen to resume this flow against Manly at Brooky.  

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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