ROUND 4: Newcastle Knights v. Canberra Raiders (McDonald Jones Stadium, 26/3/23, 24-14)

The Raiders were coming off their first win of the year with a 24-20 victory over the Sharks while the Knights were smarting from their loss to Wayne Bennett’s Dolphins, and only had a win over the Wests Tigers to show for their season, when they met at McDonald Jones on Sunday night. In the midst of a round characterised by cliffhanger finishes, sudden shifts in fortune and golden point victories, this offered a very different kind of spectacle – grinding, gritty, brinksmanship rugby league, with both sides waiting for the other one to blink first.

That’s not to say that there weren’t fluid and poetic moments. In the ten minutes after the break, the Knights went from a six point deficit to a ten point lead, executing seven sets and restricting the Raiders to just one touch of the footy, in their strongest and silkiest flow of the 2023 season so far. Yet these would also be the last points scored in the back half, giving way to a final quarter that was pure arm wrestle, endless set-for-set, until it finally devolved into a series of errors that both teams will want to forget as they prepare for next week’s games.

Canberra had first touch and made good progress up the park, with Elliott Whitehead at the forty by tackle three, and Jack Wighton taking his first kick just over halfway. Lachie Miller was raring for a break immediately, showing it and taking a crack up the right edge, where Matthew Timoko contained him, while Daniel Saifiti made some early post-contacts up the middle, and Albert Hopoate handled a strong Newcastle chase to take Jackson Hastings’ first kick. Two plays later, Hymel Hunt gave up the footy, and the Raiders capitalised quickly. 

First, Whitehead made a dent in the line by twisting and spinning on the left edge, then Emre Guler came down a couple of metres in front of the crossbars, before Matt Frawley made an early impact in the halfback jersey with a late low offload to put Hudson Young behind the posts for an easy conversion for CHN, the man who’d stripped the Steeden from Hunt to begin with. Yet a miss from Wighton at first receiver on the final play meant the Knights didn’t have to contend with another kick, and had their first bump of field position off the scrum.

Daniel Saifiti got them rolling with more post-contacts, Newcastle had their first foray into the twenty, and Miller extemporised a kick on the left edge that paid dividends when Brandon Best stormed in to force Sebastian Kris to cough it up a millisecond after he’d collected it. The hosts had a full set in the ten, but lost momentum when a Hastings pass that was intended for Miller came off the back of Saifiti, and then again when a right edge Tyson Gamble ball went to ground, leaving it to Greg Marzhew to refocus the set with a tough close range run.

He was held up on the chalk, and CHN scrambled to clean up the footy right on the line, meaning the Raiders only made thirty metres by the time that Wighton took a soaring clearing kick to reset the deficit in position. Marzhew had a restless charge two plays into the next set, dancing from boot to boot and requiring a few waves of defence to hold him up, and with six again at the twenty off a Frawley ruck infringement, the Knights looked like they might make good on their last bout of position, as Dane Gagai popped the offload to his fullback.

Miller didn’t take it clean, but the second phase rejuvenated the set, bringing Newcastle out to the left sideline and then back to the right, where Gagai took advantage of a Raiders outfit that hadn’t returned from the other wing to shoot a bullet ball out for Marzhew to slam down the Steeden in his first game in Newcastle colours as Harley Smith-Shield succumbed to a deft decoy run from Tyson Frizell. Jacko swung the Steeden away to the left, so it was a two-point game as Frizell ferried the footy over halfway, and Hastings soared a big bomb on the restart.

Kris had to take it right on his try line, and so the Raiders had another positional challenge on their hands, although this time post-contacts from Joe Tapine meant that Wighton was on the brink of halfway when he took the kick, whose energy Miller absorbed by catching it on the fly and flicking it over for Hunt to make a few more metres. Again, Kris took the kick, and again the Raiders didn’t make it out of their own end, since no sooner had Frawley crossed halfway than he chased down and knocked on a loose ball back into Canberra territory.

Even better for Newcastle, a trio of six agains from Tom Starling, Guler and Whitehead provided them with the densest accumulation of field position in Round 4, making it all but inevitable that they would score, which they did – off an elegant ball from Hastings that landed on a dime for Bradman Best, who only had to charge hard and twist hard through Timoko to get the footy down. For the second time Jacko missed the sideline conversion, but the home team had still taken their first lead today on the cusp of the second quarter.

Newcastle now had 60% of possession, and made decent headway on the restart, thanks mainly to a fifteen metre dummy half dash from Brailey, while the Raiders responded by driving it up the middle to get Frawley a pressure-free kick from the forty. The position ended up working against him, since he aimed it too deep, and yet for a moment it looked like Canberra might come out the victors here, since Miller let the ball bounce, giving Wighton time to come in and shove him a centimetre back over the chalk.

It would have been a dropout if Wighton had dialed it down just a notch, but the clip across Miller’s face turned this into a Newcastle penalty, in the most visceral and volatile change in fortune so far. The chaos continued when Brailey lobbed the ball into a mid-field vacuum, gifting Canberra some of their best territory of the game – virtually a full set in the twenty – and Wighton the opportunity to make up for his error with a daring crossfield, long-range run that saw him pivot so dramatically off the left boot that he almost slipped to ground.

From there, he dummied right, wavering precariously from side to side before finding the grass beneath the crossbar, and cementing his halves rapport with Frawley, who’d come up with his second assist of the night. CHN had an easy kick on his hands, and so the Raiders were four ahead, with what would turn out to be their final try of the afternoon, fourteen minutes out from half time. You wouldn’t have guessed it on the restart, though, as Kris had his best run up the edge, and Frawley challenged Miller for the first time with a soaring bomb.

The Raiders continued to build at the end of the next set, when Corey Horsburgh charged down a Jacko kick, and managed to contain the crazy ricochet right on the sideline. Keen to lean into Big Red’s momentum, Frawley grubbered for him on the last, but Miller managed to scoop it up right on the line, as the Knights sunk into a critical recovery set, ending with an enormous clearing kick from Hastings that Kris took deep in his ten. Pack after pack of Newcastle defenders now surged in to decelerate Canberra, keen to shift the rhythm.

They succeeded, tempting Wighton into a tricky kick across his body that ended up flying out on the full, hitting the twenty off a deft left edge raid on tackle three, and returning in that direction at the end, when Hastings tried to replicate the assist for Best, who was met with a three-man Canberra wall that held him up this time around. Again, though, the Knights came in hard in defence, spearheaded by Brodie Jones, who was fresh off the bench, shut down Hopoate on play one, and played a role in several more tough tackles throughout the set.

With seven minutes on the clock, the Raiders needed to risk a big individual play, and Starling provided it, with a shot on Hunt that forced the footy free to get his men a full set in the twenty. Brailey and Lachlan Fitzgibbon rallied with a sterling shot on Papalii, and a beat later Kris followed Hunt with a cold drop of his own, thanks to clinical contact from Gagai, before Hunt took the first tackle on the following set to prove that even Starling’s initiative hadn’t dented Newcastle’s hopes, before Gagai took his best midfield charge to break the forty.

Hastings’ next bomb was his highest so far, a mercurial floater that Gagai took in a sea of Canberra jerseys, and offloaded backwards in what looked set to be a trio of enterprising plays – only for Wighton to collect it, rippling another surge of energy through a green and whie outfit desperate for points before the halftime siren. Yet Hunt continued to work his way back from the Starling hit, burrowing the footy to ground in the face of an enormous Canberra chase, before Hastings attempted to boot it above the head of Hopoate.

Hoppa did well to take it, and made a good fifteen metres on the return, giving the green machine another chance to accelerate into Newcastle territory. After struggling to make metres in the home team’s end, the Raiders were making up for lost time here, at least until Marzhew stuck a boot back over the line to get his men seven tackles, while Gagai continued his recent run of form with an on-the-ground offload to Hastings, meaning Fitzgibbon was in the ten and very nearly crashed over on tackle four.

Only a Frawley-Kris-Horsburgh pile-on prevented him scoring four, while the Raiders summoned an even more scrambling defence on the last, with a four-man pack that shut down Jack Hetheringon beside the left post. This was the peak Canberra moment of the game, defence so good that they had to translate it into points, and with only ten seconds on the clock, Frawley cemented his stint at halfback, and delivered in the only way possible, with a superb two-point field goal from the cusp of the forty to give his men a converted try lead.

It was a spectacular way to send out the first stanza, and yet these would be the last Canberra points of the game, as the Knights proceeded to lay down sixteen unanswered points in the back half. They had the first touch of the footy when they returned from the sheds, as Hetherington took out some of the frustration of his miss before the siren by setting his sights on CHN and Papalii, before a four-man Newcastle pack kept Timoko in the ten on tackle two of the Raiders’ first stint, which ended with Wighton putting boot to ball well inside the forty.

Horsburgh’s enthusiasm got the better of him with high contact at the start of the next set, and the Knights capitalised immediately, shifting it left on the first for Jones to barge his way towards the twenty, before Hastings took his most restless run across the defence all afternoon – so mercurial, indeed, that nobody quite read his intentions on the left wing, forcing him to take the tackle himself. For the second time this afternoon, however, Newcastle innovation on one wing ended up catalysing a putdown back on the other edge.

For Jacko’s run seemed to have expelled the Knights’ residual restlessness, settling them into a supreme calm as a pair of short passes from Miller and Jones set up Gamble for a gorgeous lofting harbour bridge ball that gave Marzhew a double out on the wing. Miller took over sideline kicking duties from Hastings, and slotted through the first conversion of the game for the home team, in what felt like a sign of serendipity, proof that the rugby league gods were on their side now, as they launched into a monster restart with the score locked up at 14-14.

This was the best Newcastle set of the game, a throwback to their glory era, as they accelerated and accelerated, making massive metres until Mat Croker banged into the line and flicked a beautiful offload back to Hetherington, who sliced past Kris before Papalii brought him down with a trysaving cover tackle. There was too much speed now for this to be the end of the story, as Hastings and Millers combined for Gagai, their most experienced player on the park, to stand up and take control of the narrative with Kalyn Ponga absent.

Storming up the sideline, he didn’t have to rely on Marzhew on his outside, planting a big fend into Harley Smith-Shields and tumbling through Hopoate to put down one of the most rousing tries of Round 4, before rising to his feet and slamming the Knights logo on his jersey, flush with Newcastle pride. Miller added another sideline conversion, Wighton got done for going chest to chest with Hastings after the kick, and the Knights felt that he hadn’t made a decent enough effort to wrap the arms, coming in for a fracas that ended with big Jack being binned.

Newcastle were now at peak footy flow, on a high they hadn’t yet experienced in 2023, even with Ponga on the park, and so a Pasami Saulo ruck error gave way, inevitably, to a Frizell crossover on the right edge. Taking advantage of Wighton’s absence, the Knights shifted it right, sliding it out for Miller to pop a short ball on for Frizell to go one-on-one with Starling, who didn’t have a shot at stopping him. By the time a crowd of other Raiders stormed in it was too late, and so the Knights had skyrocketed to a ten-point lead with Miller’s missed kick.

Ten minutes ago, Canberra had been six ahead, while they’d only had a single set since half time, compared to seven for Newcastle. To their credit, they staunched the flow of points, since the scoreline wouldn’t change between now and the final siren, while the Knights were forced into their biggest positional challenge since the break a set later, although even then Gamble got to halfway by the time he landed the kick. Frawley wasn’t much further down the park for his next boot, which Marzhew did well to take on the turf, right on the sideline.

Horsburgh stepped up again early in the next set, ricocheting straight out of a tackle on Gagai into a shot on Phoenix Crossland, who coughed it up as a result. With a scrum from the thirty, Canberra had to hit back now, and Tapine did well to drag three defenders over the ten and right up to the line, where he won six again off a Croker ruck infringement. The Raiders had their first restart of the afternoon, after conceding five to the home team, but Crossland made up for his error by cleaning up Frawley on the fourth, who ended with a chip out to the left.

Marzhew was in position to ensure there was no chance of a Canberra crossover, and so the Knights stuck into their last full set with Wighton in the bin. Kris responded with his best take of the night, curving around to get the high ball on the fly and then bringing it all the way to the thirty. The Raiders were accelerating, and were on the cusp of the red zone on play four, when some miscommunication between the two props led to a Tapine knock on, and a mixed Knights set, with Hastings forced to take the tackle before Gamble popped out a deft offload.

The last quarter of the match would be a real grind, as both teams set in for a period of brinksmanship. Hopoate fell back to take Hastings’ next kick, Young made some decent metres down the left side, the green machine swept it across for Timoko to almost bust through on the right, and yet Frawley’s boot didn’t come with much of a chase, or put much pressure on Miller. Canberra were working it off their try line again in no time, with Timoko putting in his best charge of the night to drag Crossland fifteen metres up the middle.

Finally, they elasticised out to the left edge, laying a platform back infield for Wighton to make his first enterprising play since the sin bin, with a short kick that Miller read beautifully to recover from the chalk. Again, Timoko added yardage after contact, although this time Frizell and Brailey came in to support Crossland, and ensure he couldn’t rack up the same tally as his last charge. All this end-to-end tension spilled over at the end of the set, when Young got Miller in the back, beneath the high ball, leading to an immediate albeit minor fracas in goal.  

The call was that Marzhew’s converging run had been the reason that Miller hit the deck, and since he’d grounded the footy with his chest, this was a dropout, and the first significant rhythm-shifter since Newcastle’s last try. Miller booted it all the way to his own forty, where Mann’s afternoon ended following a collision with Tapine, as he came off for the requisite fifteen minute period with fourteen left on the clock. Croker returned to the park, Canberra resumed their dropout, and Wighton showed it to make metres for Kris up the left wing.

From there, they spread it right, where Whitehead almost lost it in an attempt to break through the line, and Frawley chipped crossfield to Wighton, who got both hands to it, only for Gagai to save the day by forcing the knock on at the death. Meanwhile, Mann had been ruled a Category 1, bad news ahead of next week’s clash with Manly, while Frawley floated his next one, but didn’t pose much danger to Miller. By the time the Knights finished the next set, there were ten minutes left on the clock, and ten points separating the two teams.

This was gritty rugby league now, with both sides grinding it out, more or less going set for set, waiting for the other outfit to falter. If Canberra was going to score, it felt like it must involve Kris, who had only escalated in speed and position since Newcastle bounced ahead, but he wouldn’t have a chance on this set, when a Smith-Shields error got the hosts their first tackle from their own thirty. Yet that set-for-set rhythm had become an error-for-error rhythm too, as Gagai put it down just as fast, and Fitzgibbon got pinged for some high contact.

The green machine had their most promising bout on the line in some time, as Guler smashed down before the crossbar, CHN had his best run of the game with a searching, seemingly endless pivot back and forth on the right edge, and Tapine provided a consolidator by smashing up in Guler’s wake, only to lose the footy as he was playing it, a decision so traumatic in the context of this final burst of Canberra energy that the visitors sent it upstairs. They got nothing, and the deflation devolved their focus and vision over the last six minutes.

Kris was the nest to succumb, with an error that marked the end of a sublime streak that had seen him up notch up 245 run metres, before a Hopoate offside set up Miller for a penalty shot that he missed. Errors from Papalii and Guler closed out the game, which offered a counterpoint to the close finishes of Round 4, but was thrilling in a different kind of way, proof to Newcastle’s dogged determination not to betray their best burst this season – a critical motivator for taking on a Manly outfit galvanised by their golden point loss to the Bunnies.

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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