Newcastle only had two home wins this season, against Gold Coast in Round 16 and the Tigers back in Round 2, but they came tantalisingly close to catharsis for the Hunter faithful at McDonald Jones on Sunday afternoon. Over the first forty, they completed twenty from twenty, put down 22 points (their season average was fourteen per game) and all in all delivered their best opening half since they hosted Wests at the beginning of the year. The stage was set for the kind of victory that nurtures self-belief well into the off-season.
Yet that opening made the second stanza even harder. They wouldn’t score another point beyond the break, when Jacob Saifiti’s absence with Covid and Tyson Frizell’s absence due to a rib injury sustained during warmup really made themselves felt. With Jack Wighton’s visionary playmaking at the helm, the Raiders responded to that deficit amongst the Newcastle big men with a sublime combo from Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine at the death to put their five-eighth over the line, and so end a 22-22 deadlock in the most rousing way.
Jacob Saifiti took the first carry of the afternoon, and David Klemmer celebrated his return to the park with a strong charge on tackle two, before Jayden Brailey drove it hard into the defence to break halfway, setting up Saifiti for a second run to get Anthony Milford in place for a boot to the right wing, where Nick Cotric came up with it ten out from his own line. The Raiders didn’t make it out of their own end, with Wighton kicking it in the forty, while Krystian Mapapalangi took his first NRL run two plays later, as the Knights broke halfway again.
It had been a good start positionally for Newcastle, but Josh Papalii was determined to hit Knights territory midway through the next count, and Wighton made the most of it with a deft chip into the left corner, where the footy soared up unexpectedly on the second bounce, forcing Hoy to grab it into his chest and take it over the dead ball line with the chase converging on him. Yet no sooner had Canberra glimpsed the momentum than Papalii shaped for the offload out of a Klemmer tackle but could’t direct it far enough backwards.
The Knights had gone from defending a dropout to the first full set in enemy territory, as Milford stepped up in the middle of the park, showing a big one out to the left, and then dashing a few metres further out in the same direction to dishevel the Canberra defence enough for Edrick Lee to put down the first try against his former club. Full credit to Adam Clune too, for the precision timing that got Mapapalangi in place for his first assist in top-tier footy – a good showing for the faithful home crowd parched for McDonald wins in 2022.
Milford couldn’t bookend it with a conversion, keeping us to a four-point game as big Klem charged into an Adam Elliott-led pack to get the restart rolling. For the first time all afternoon, the Knights looked set to stay in their own end, inducing Milf to kick early, and nab a 40/20 for his vision. The replay showed it was closer than the refs had assumed, but the call had already been made, so there was no chance to scrutinise whether the tip of the Steeden had hit the sideline as the home side got stuck in for the first close-range set of the match.
They swung left for the first couple of tackles, where Brodie Jones tried to smash over, before Wighton came up with the most heroic play so far to leap up and take the crossfield chip in both arms beside the right post. One more big play from Wighton and the green machine might restore some flow here, and so it was on the last, when he booted it harder than any half so far, utterly defying Dom Young, who knocked it back on the line, and only just managed to reach out his palm and plant the footy down before Tapine chased it down.
Canberra now had their second dropout of the night, as Hoy booted it to halfway, and relied on big runs rather than second phase to reach the twenty by tackle two. Elliott Whitehead, in particular, took a mammoth charge on the right, laying a platform for his men to rapidly shift back to the other side of the park. Again, Wighton played the pivotal role in this sweep, receiving a wide one from Jamal Fogarty and timing the assist perfectly for Sebastian Kris to step around Dane Gagai, and plant the footy down to make it a four-point game.
It stayed that way when Fogarty missed the kick, but Wighton’s three contributions here – taking the chip, making the kick, anchoring the sweep – kept Canberra dominant, while Kris now had his best tryscoring season with two games to go until finals. The Knights had hit back fast and hard, and ideally puncture Wighton’s alpha presence in the process, and that’s just what Hoy did, not only collecting the high ball clean, but breaking through the line and clearing halfway on the same play, to get his men another big stint on the Canberra chalk.
For a brief beat, Milford sized up another early kick, this time on the fourth, but opted to spread it out to the left, where Mapapalangi set his eyes on the line, and made big contact with Matthew Timoko, centre on centre, before Clune reprised his early crossfield kick, this time as a bomb, and the Raiders did almost as well off it, when Young got pinged for aerial contact. At least that’s how it appeared at first, since the visitors didn’t make much headway, only breaking halfway by tackle four, before Papalii promptly coughed it up on tackle five.
This had been two messy plays from big Josh, and that seemed to galvanise the Knights’ big men – especially Klem, who stood for an age in the tackle late in the count, only for Fogarty to dissolve all that grunt with the most gymnastic play so far. Reading Milf perfectly, he got himself in place to collect the footy as it ricocheted off the left padding, and somehow managed to get back in field to preclude what initially looked like a certain dropout. Wighton kicked for position now, getting his men a brief breather as the second quarter drew near.
Newcastle got their first penalty since the fourth minute early in the next set, when Tapine got done for crowding, and were on the ten by play two, where Papalii did well to contain Saifiti, and Young made up for a couple of messy moments by crossing over a tackle later on the right. This was faster and more clinical than the tryscoring sweep to the left, starting with a stunning catch-and-pass from Milford that lent some of its speed to the follow-up efforts from Hoy and Gagai too, giving Young just enough time to get outside the other Young.
No doubt, Canberra had been short down this side, but the try still depended on this scinatillating speed, which gave Newcastle a second wind as quarter two got underway. It wasn’t to be a major night for the kicks, however, as Milf missed it again to return us to a four-point contest. Klem and Jones took bone-rattling contact to commence the restart, Brailey got Phoenix Crossland some space to play up the middle, and Milford hoisted it high, although Savage was up to it, and weathered a three-man pack to hold his own at the twenty.
Elliott had been a bit quiet in the forward pack, and compounded it with a blatant forward pass to Young early in the next count, gifting Newcastle a scrum just inside Canberra territory. The visitors were clearly frustrated by this turnaround – or at least Kris was frustrated, bouncing in for big contact on Gagai on play one, while Milford hit back with a harbour bridge ball to Young that had traces of their earlier synergy on the right edge. Sure enough, Milf headed that way again on the last, only to get twisty with a pass back inside to Gagai.
This was an admission of defeat, an acknowledgment that he couldn’t do any more with the play, especially since Dane hasn’t got much of a kicking game, so the rhythm was in danger of shifting back to Canberra now, making it all the more agonising when Savage put it down a couple of plays later off some mammoth energy from Mapapalangi, whose team mates crowded in to congratulate him for what might be one of the key defensive efforts of this half. Add the first restart, a play later, off a Tom Starling effort, and the Knights were rolling.
They only took a play to score now, with the best consolidation putdown from either side so far. Crossland was the first ingredient, building on his earlier work up the middle with a bullet ball to Milf, who reached out his right hand to collect it, and only just managed to rein it in before he fed it on to Gagai. That same precariousness extended to Dane, who briefly stumbled, but parlayed this brief uncertainty into an even more mercurial run – good enough to utterly defy Kris, who tried to bring him down, but found himself fended to ground.
Cotric couldn’t do much more to stop Gagai, who hadn’t been able to come up with a last-tackle option last time Milford flicked the footy back to him, but was all vision here, busting into space at the thirty-metre line, travelling fifteen more, and lobbing it out for Young to make it a double on the wing. Milf might have missed another conversion, but his men had the biggest lead of the game so far, and had consolidated their first try on the right wing with an equally prodigious but very different combination of largely the same key playmakers.
No surprise, then, that the Newcastle fans were on their feet to applaud this show of spirit, nor that the Raiders seemed to wilt for a beat, as Fogarty booted his next one from halfway, leaving Newcastle territory uncharted for the moment. Jordan Rapana was the first Raider to make his way back from this brief slump, putting down the best post-contacts of the night two plays into the next set, most of them facing his own goal line, inciting Cotric to put down even more on the following play, and with more Knights hanging onto his back as well.
With these two big runs behind them, the visitors came close to reversing the rhythm on the last, as Savier chased down a Fogarty grubber with a nightmare bounce, coming close to a simultaneous putdown with Hoy deep in goal after the Newcastle fullback took a swing and a miss on the try line. Even so, the green machine had a dropout, their first close-range attack in some time, and then a brilliant consolidator when Rapana, the man who had recharged them with the post-contacts, took a Timoko ball and smashed out for four on the right wing.
This was a critical hitback against Newcastle’s brilliance on their own right edge, partly because it was methodical where the Knights had been visionary, structured where the hosts had been inspired. Elliott started with a sturdy pass from the middle of the park, Fogarty ran just far enough into the line to get Savage in place to hold his ground, and Kris ended with the assist, which from some angles looked forward, leading to boos and jeers from the home crowd, but was permitted by the touch judges, as Fogarty lined up the tee from the sideline.
He came closer than any kicker so far, but with the footy ricocheting off the post this remained a conversion-free forty – and would stay that way when Newcastle bounced back off a Wighton penalty for holding back Milford at the end of the next set. By all rights, the visitors should have been able to simply continue here, and take advantage of some burgeoning position for Hoy, but it didn’t much matter, as Klemmer tumbled onto the twenty, and Hoy onto the ten, setting up Milf for a crossfield bomb that big Edrick took clean on the left.
The two Newcastle wingers had doubles in the first half, and now the ex-Raider had bookended the forty, slamming it down silhouetted against the afternoon sun, for exactly the instantly iconic image the Knights need at this point in their season. To rub salt in the wound, Rapana was the only defender in place, helpless in this David-and-Goliath contest, and suddenly robbed of the presence he’d enjoyed in his own bookended period of brilliance. Like Fogarty before him, Milford hit the post, but the Knights were still double Canberra 16-8.
With ninety seconds to go, that would have been a pretty rousing way to hit the sheds, the equal biggest lead of the game so far, but the Knights had another trick up their sleeve. For a moment it looked like their restart was over when Klem popped out a messy offload, and Milf scrambled onto it, but the error was held to be Wighton’s, as a potential turnover changed into a scrum, and Mat Croker busted through the line a tackle later, doing his 257 mates (present and absent) proud by feeding it for Brailey to cross untouched beside the left post.
It felt right that Milf added the first conversion right in front on the siren, since this had been a truly epic opener for a Newcastle outfit that had only averaged fourteen points per game in 2022 – twenty from twenty sets, 22 on the board, and their best first forty since they hosted the Tigers in Round 2. Admittedly, they had struggled with the back forty in 2022, but if they could maintain this same flow after returning from the sheds, and continue to keep Canberra out, this might well be the game to cement their self-belief over the off-season.
By the time the players headed to the sheds, Round 23 had nabbed the greatest number of points in an NRL Round – 446, eight ahead of Round 20 2020 and Round 17 2004, the previous two record holders at 438. The Raiders had the first set back and got two kicks on the last, but Wighton couldn’t make much distance, so they were lucky to have garnered enough field position that the Knights couldn’t break their own forty by the time Milf put boot to ball. Fogarty caught it clean, without much of a challenge, and the visitors had another shot.
They looked more fluid this time, spreading it left midway through the count, and then shifting to the other side of the park a play later, thanks to some good direction up the middle from Young, before Fogarty bombed from the twenty as the light turned golden over Hunter. The Raiders had been shamed by a high ball before the break, so it was cathartic for the away crowd to see Kris take advantage of a non-existent Newcastle chase to make one of his biggest ever leaps off the turf to collect the footy in both hands and beat Hoy for a double of his own.
The conversion drought had ended as Fogarty sliced it through the posts, the Raiders wasted no time in barrelling their way up the park, Fogarty took another dangerous bomb from the thirty, and Hoy made up for being caught napping last time by taking it clean in a sea of green jerseys. It was a good individual effort, but quickly followed by an individual error, as Clune lost it cold, a millisecond before the kick, as he braced himself for contact from Corey Horsburgh, who was deemed not to have made a genuine attempt to shape for a tackle.
This was the worst call of the afternoon, so it was poetic justice when Kris slammed the footy free from Pasami Saulo midway up the park, Young scooped it up, tucked it under his arm, and made it all the way to the twenty. Right away, Wighton was scheming again, shaping from side to side before he was downed by Crossland at the ten, before Guler took a steadying run towards the left post and came down three from the line. Canberra now parlayed all that accelerating energy out towards the left, where Young would bookend it a minute later.
For the next few plays, however, they consolidated, as Fogarty scooped up a bouncing ball, Elliott found himself swarmed by Knights and retraced his steps to make space for Horsburgh, and Wighton came in again to add his vision to the attack, prompting some terrific goal-line defence from Croker. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Young translated that brilliant catalytic run into one of the best kicks of his career – a tribute to all the practice he’s been doing with the boot, and with the shape and trajectory of his grubber efforts in particular.
Finding himself two metres out, he split the difference between a kick and dummy half surge, popping it so vertically off the right foot that he seemed to have bounced it in goal. The play utterly defied Hoy, who reached out both hands, couldn’t secure it, but still made a valiant effort to chase it down as Young followed his kick with an even more scintillating putdown. Against all the odds, he got it to earth half a foot behind the dead ball line while his whole torso was hanging a metre in the air behind it, about as good a somersault try as you’ll see.
After a solitary try in 2019, four in 2020 and five in 2021, Young now had his ninth of the 2022 season, and that acceleration seemed to spread to the Canberra outfit at large, as Fogarty slotted through another two, and then levelled the score with a penalty kick when Gagai was put on report for a dangerous shot. Add a ruck error from Milf just after Fogarty’s conversion, and a Hoy kickoff that sailed out on the full after Fogarty’s penalty, and the Knights had lost all their rhythm of the first half, and at the very worst time, with the score tied at 22-22.
They wouldn’t put down another point this stanza, as a creeping dread seemed to seep over the Newcastle faithful, a prescient silence, an unspoken awareness that the brilliant first forty might just end up texturing how much they were actually lacking at this late point in their season. To their credit, they bounced back from a Jones knock-on of a Fogarty kick with some of their best goal line defence of the night, and then forced an error from Rapana as he tried to offload out of a three-man pack, getting themselves a scrum as the final quarter arrived.
Even better, they got a brief glimpse of their former right-edge glory on play one, when Gagai poked his nose through the line and sent it out to Young for a break. The no. 5 managed to tread the tightrope of the sideline with Raiders on all sides, but found nobody in support when he popped it back inside, for a knock-on that absorbed all this newfound speed like a black hole. Things disintegrated quickly for the Knights now, starting with Hoy reverting to a bush footy fullback as Grant Atkins instructed him to run an errant tracking device off the park.
More seriously, this picaresque moment was bookended by Croker being put on report for a dangerous tackle, and the Raiders winning a challenge to continue their assault on the Newcastle line. This wasn’t one of Canberra’s best sets, however, capping off a relatively average period, despite their good luck, when Tapine found himself with the footy on the last, and booted it like you’d expect a prop to boot it – much too hard. The Knights were faltering, but the Raiders needed to shine, and needed one really strong try to bring the game home.
Rapana got them on the way by reprising his battle with Lee from before the break, coming off the victor this time beneath a soaring Milford bomb, before Tapine wrestled his way to the thirty, and Wighton made up for a boot at the same spot by going bomb-for-bomb with Milford, and proving himself the alpha kicker. It was the most terrifying and towering ball of the night, bolstered by a tough chase from Papalii to bump Hoy back in the ten. As in the first half, Wighton had modelled the self-belief his men needed to get back into peak flow again.
Sure enough, Fogarty echoed his halves partner with a kick that was almost as high, even if it didn’t have the seventy-metre sweep of Wighton’s monster effort, forcing the Knights to work it back from their own end for the second successive set. Milford’s kick from the forty had decent range, but felt limp in comparison to the last two footy asteroids, especially when Savage took it clean, as Oryn Keeley made his first NRL tackle on Wighton, and Starling had his best dummy half run, trampling over Simi Sasagi to almost break into space.
Again, the Knights were trapped down their own end, so it felt like only a matter of time before the Raiders would get an extra burst of field position and score the try that would settle the scoreline once and for all. Milf tried to hit back with a 40/20, and while he didn’t quite make it, he still bought his team some breathing-space to plan how they would force the next Newcastle error, since they couldn’t withstand this field position differential for much longer, while Canberra now withheld the offloads in an attempt to consolidate.
Wighton chose to boot it on play three, but for the first time tonight his enterprising play didn’t come off, as the Steeden sailed over the sideline on the full, an ovoid of brilliant light against the fluorescent purple sky. The Knights had their best shot since the Raiders scored – perhaps their most dramatic chance to change the rhythm since the break – and yet it all ended with a whimper, as Clune drove it up the left, and came too close to the line, once the defenders had jammed in, to have any opportunity of matching Young’s visionary grubber.
On the other side of the Steeden, Papalii now got the break he’d been raring for all evening, barging through the line and then feeding it back in to his fellow frontrower in Tapine, who made it inside the red zone, and then passed with the combination of grace and grunt that marks prop perfection. He’d carried the footy in one hand for most of his run, and now went for a harbour bridge that was more or less one-handed, bowling it cricket-style sideways for a bounce that Wighton read perfectly, scooping it up and smashing over on the left wing.
It felt right that this was the last try of the night, since it felt like a full stop on the game – Canberra’s two frontrowers combining in brutal conviction to make way for their most pivotal playmaker to stamp his signature on the match with the last of a series of clutchy putdowns from both teams on the wings. In other words, the perfect motivator for the green machine as they prepare to take on a dispririted Sea Eagles outfit next week, as well as a very sobering back forty for Newcastle, who’ll be playing for pride when they take on Gold Coast.