ROUND 6: Newcastle Knights v. New Zealand Warriors (McDonald Jones Stadium, 9/4/23, 34-24)
The Warriors might have been without Tohu Harris, Marata Niukore and Mitch Barnett when they rocked up to play Newcastle in the Hunter on Sunday night, but they were also coming off one of the best ever wins in club history, one of the best comebacks of the modern NRL era, and Shaun Johnson’s return to peak footy. Johnson would continue to shine in Newcastle, playing as well as he ever has, but the Knights also had something to prove after grinding out the entire ten minutes of golden point to head home with a draw with Manly last Saturday.
To intensify the tension, these two outfits had already met once in 2023, in only the second game of the season, when the Warriors had come away with a 20-12 win in Wellington, while they were sitting dead even in their 47-match history – 23 wins apiece, and a single draw, back in 2000, when John Simon and Tony Butterfield were leading them around the park. Like last week against the Sharkies, New Zealand gradually worked themselves into the game, with only back-to-back efforts from Kurt Mann and Greg Marzhew saving Newcastle’s evening.
Addin Fonua-Blake took the first run of the match, and Bunty Afoa followed in his wake, with Jazz Tevaga sturdying the attack up the middle, and Fonua-Blake volunteering a second carry to barge it over halfway, before Johnson booted his first one, and Marzhew put up his hand to collect it. Addin then led a three-man pack to prevent Daniel Saifiti bringing it back into New Zealand territory, before the Warriors settled in to get through the first five minutes without conceding a try for the first time in 2023.
Dane Gagai elasticized the start of the next set with an offload out to Lachie Miller, and the Knights got a bump up the park a play later, when Tevaga was called offside in the ten. After dabbling around on the left edge, they sent it inside for Jackson Hastings to set up Leo Thompson for a steadier, before sending it back to the left, where Johnson found himself offside, and Edward Kosi got a hand to the footy a few plays after. Five minutes had elapsed by the time Newcastle packed the first scrum, with three straight sets behind them.
The Warriors might have avoided conceding another try in the opening five minutes, but only just, since the Knights now delivered on their first foray to the right edge. Gagai set it up with a deft catch-and-pass as he was tumbled to ground, and Young followed with a superhuman sequel to his foursome against the Sea Eagles last week. Slamming into Viliami Vailea, he lifted the New Zealand backliner off the ground, and shoved past him to plant the footy down as Fonua-Blake came in at the death, as if fueled by the frustration of last week’s draw.
Miller sent his first one straight through the posts, and so the Knights had six on the board, receiving another Johnson offside on the restart and another burst of adrenalin that was quickly absorbed by the visiting team when Kosi reached out his right hand, bobbled a Phoenix Crossland ball, and then reined it in to make his way to the Newcastle ten. Yet as impressive as the intercept was, the chase was even better, with seven Knights converging on Kosi until Miller and Tyson Frizell finally combined to bring him to ground before he reached the chalk.
It was a good enough play to ensure that, when Adam Pompey lost it a beat later, the Knights hadn’t really conceded any momentum, especially once Crossland hit back with an enormous bomb that kept the Warrors in their own end for the entirety of the next set. Johnson responded with a precisely controlled kick over the sideline to give his men some breathing space, and assert his own consummate game management, as the hosts now found themselves working it off their own line, without any penalty to alleviate them this time.
For the first time tonight, the Warriors started a set close to halfway, but lost momentum when play paused on the penultimate tackle for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, who copped the lightest of touches from Frizell, but still took a good thirty seconds to return to his feet. No penalty was forthcoming, while the visitors returned to conceding them when Josh Curran got done for crowding Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who had already made fifteen metres, early in the next set. Two plays later, Frizell was inside the twenty, where he made five after contact.
With a failed trap-and-scrap on the last, the crowd went wild as their beloved Knights received a full set on the chalk, only for CNK to prove his fitness with the best individual play from New Zealand so far – curving around to take a Jacko kick that seemed destined to produce a dropout, and burrowing it into the turf a metre out from the try line to save the day for the visitors. Add a Jayden Brailey penalty for not being square at marker a beat later, and the Warriors had a rare chance to add to their 2-13 tally for tackles in the opposition twenty.
Pompey was the man to do it, and on the second last play, before Johnson chipped crossfield, and Young came up with an even better dropout save than CNK. In a sea of outstretched Warriors hands, he came up with the footy in goal, and laid the platform for arguably Newcastle’s best sequence of the season. Young sprinted all the way to the twenty, and flicked it out at the thirty to Miller, who was at the opposition thirty before he skidded back inside, and was finally downed at the twenty, where he played the ball as quickly as possible.
From there, the Knights channeled all that energy into a left edge sweep, starting with Miller himself, who lofted a cut-out ball that Fitzgibbon read beautifully, leaping up to take it in both hands before flicking it further out for Bradman Best to tuck under the arm, drive into the defence, and offload at the last minute for Marzhew, who condensed all this gymnastic brilliance into the toughest run of the game – straight into CNK, who he used as a fulcrum, gaining just the leverage he needed to pivot the footy down for a barnstorming four points.
Miller might have missed the kick, but his two big plays here, pass and run, more than made up for it. The Warriors didn’t waste any time absorbing this adrenalin as their own either, storming into the red zone off a Saifiti ruck infringement, and winning a Captain’s Challenge at the end of a vigorous left sweep, when Vailea backed himself to insist that Young had knocked the footy forward as he was shaping a round-the-corner pass to Marcelo Montoya on the wing. It was a strong statement from the young backliner, and paid off a play later.
Johnson’s footwork had nabbed him a try last week, and now it got him an assist, as he drove the Steeden up the right edge off the scrum base, showing it from side to side, and pivoting from side to side, in a syncopating rhythm that ultimately defied Best, while clearing up space for Pompey to carry it over the chalk with such speed and conviction that he was only a few millimetres from the dead ball line when he dove to ground. Johnson capped it off with the kick, twenty out and fifteen in, and we were back to a four-point game off his superb vision.
Fonua-Blake, Dylan Walker and Jackson Ford had the footy over halfway by play four of the next set, starting off their biggest advance of the night, as the Newcastle defence retreated to their own twenty. It was frustrating, then, when Walker opted for a short-side play on the last despite Vailea being surrounded by Newcastle defenders, and Crossland capitalised on the let-off by continuing to take the responsibility for long kicks, this time with a soaring effort that could have kept New Zealand on their own try line if not for another rapid advance.
Unfortunately for the visitors, they didn’t get a chance to lean into this acceleration, as an early Kosi cough-up gave Newcastle a full set in the thirty, most of it spent in the twenty after Kosi bumped his way through the defence on tackle two. The Hunter locals got a restart on the ten, thanks to a Tom Ale ruck error, and were frustrated twice on the left sweep – first, when Brailey was downed before he could even get it started, and then when a silky movement through Crossland, Hastings, Miller and Best was contained by the edge defence.
With the sweep eliminated, the Knights came up with a different kind of try, both simpler and luckier, starting with a Hastings crossfield bomb that came down beside the right padding. Crossland leaped a full metre above the opposition to tap it back, but fortunately it defied him, and came off the legs of Thompson, rolling around a bit before sitting up directly in front of Frizell, who only had to scoop it up and pop over for the easiest four points of his career. Miller had a similarly easy angle, and so the hosts were ten ahead with ten until halftime.
For the moment, however, this try seemed to exhaust them, or at least gave way to a slump, starting with Crossland barking out for early contact from Ford, and continuing through a fumbled play-the-ball from Brodie Jones that marked only the second Newcastle error of the night, and all in all one of the messiest mistakes from either team. The Warriors promptly got two restarts, off a ruck error from Fitzgibbon and a touch from Frizell, before an offside from Hastings put the hosts in danger of a sin bin as they dug in to tighten up the goal line defence.
They did well to hold up an Egan show-and-go beside the right padding, but seemed to have been thwarted a few plays later by some more superb Johnson footwork – this time a skip into the line that opened up just enough space for CNK to smash through 4 and 5 for the try that would have narrowed the deficit to single digits if Pompey hadn’t obstructed Hastings in the process. Jacko had no chance of preventing the try, which made the let-off even more cathartic for Newcastle, and the Best-Crossland tryscoring combo even better a beat later.
Crossland started with a crossfield bomb to the left edge, where Marzhew tapped it back to Fitzgibbon, who fed it on to Best, and raised a fist pump as he saw the cult backliner chipping back towards the uprights, for Crossland to bring it all full circle by delivering the chase sequel to the convergence on Kosi during the first quarter. The footy careened crazier with each bounce, meaning Phoenix had to accelerate to full stride to reach it, but also read the trajectory to avoid losing it on the turf, both of which he achieved with consummate skill.
With another conversion from Miller, the Knights headed to the sheds 22-8, and had the first carry of the second stanza, meeting a renewed New Zealand defensive line, and a Warriors outfit who had pulled off the comeback of the century against the Sharkies last week. Unable to break their own end, they relied on Crossland’s boot to push the Warriors back, but even with the Steeden landing in the ten, Johnson was at his forty by the time he hoisted it high, and landed it in the ten himself, where Young was taken by a committed defensive pack.
Despite this confident opening, however, the Warriors still had chinks in their armour, and so conceded yet another penalty early in the next set, this time a Ford offside, opening up the park for the first great Newcastle acceleration of the back forty. Miller dummied and followed with the best flick pass of the game for Best, who drove it back inside, and then popped it across for what would have been Jacko’s first try in the Knights jersey if Miller hadn’t inadvertently got in the way of Johnson, in a echo of CNK’s frustration out on his right edge.
Both sides had now lost a try off an obstruction, and that seemed to level the game, propelling Te Maire Martin into a near-putdown at the end of the next New Zealand set, where he almost busted through a Miller-Crossland tackle on the chalk, only to lose control of the footy at the very death. The game had reached peak volatility, unleashing a free-flowing adrenalin that both teams tried to harness, the Knights on their very next stint, when Frizell turned back the clock with a barnstorming near-break before offloading out for Crossland to take over.
The young five-eighth made it third phase with an even more precarious pass, right on the turf, and while Miller couldn’t contain it, CNK knocked it on in the scoop-up as well. Add Martin leaving with a leg injury, mere minutes after almost scoring what could have been a tipping-point try, Egan having failed the HIA that sent him off two minutes before the break, Jack Johns slamming in for an enormous hit on Vailea, and Hastings tumbling over the fence off the momentum of popping a Johnson kick dead, and we were at a crisis point in the game.
The away crowd were well into the second stanza of Sweet Caroline as the Warriors launched into their restart, building to a left sweep that ended with a Young-Montoya trysaver, the Newcastle backliner landing on his back to absorb the brunt of the hardest run of the match from the ex-Bulldog. That attacking energy surely couldn’t dissipate immediately, and Johnson made sure it didn’t, sliding through a crafty grubber that defied Miller behind the line, and then executing another brilliant right edge assist off the subsequent scrum base.
This time, he drifted into the line, pivoted briefly, and flicked it out for Pompey, who barely had a contest with his opposing 4, palming off Best’s fingertips before thudding to ground between Marzhew and Brailey. With the conversion, Johnson became the first Warrior to reach a thousand points, and was in full footy flow, ending the restart with a scintillating kick to trap Newcastle in their thirty for the entire set, before Crossland booted it thirty-five metres out. Those early tackle New Zealand penalties had faded into the distant past now.
Johnson swept it right on the last, and Pompey ended up grubbering on the wing, weighting it well so that Miller had no choice but to come down with five Warriors between him and the try line. He went short with the dropout – too short, setting up New Zealand for an easy penalty in front of the posts. Instead, they opted for another set, as Fonua-Blake almost barged through a hole beneath the crossbar on play one, Crossland and Miller combined to hold up Sironen on the left, and Addin took another crack at tumbling through on the right.
Those three massive plays laid the foundation for Johnson to reprise the last shift to the right, this time by flicking it back inside for CNK, who got his arms free from Best, turned around to face his own try line, and offloaded a milisecond before the tackle was complete. Pompey was the recipient, and followed up with a calm assist to Kosi, who was unmarked on the wing, and so far from the Newcastle defence’s mind that he only had to reach out to plant the footy down, narrowing the deficit to four once Johnson booted through the sideline conversion.
Johnson’s next one sat up right on the try line, and Shaun led the chase himself, forcing Miller to put in a superhuman effort to avoid another dropout. Montoya aimed for the same heavy contact on Gagai, but the veteran backliner dodged away, and got his men eight more metres, before Crossland booted it on the run five out from halfway. Miller didn’t have to contend with much of a chase under Johnson’s next bomb, and while Ford tried to compensate, he was caught offside downtown, as word came down that Martin had fractured his fibula.
The final quarter was well underway as Jayden Brailey left the park with a knee issue, bringing Mat Croker back off the bench, as Johnson continued to energise the attack with a big dummy and pass for Pompey, and yet another bomb for Miller, who had to collect in the face of a harder faster chase this time around. Since the break, Newcastle had only completed six sets, made three tackles in New Zealand’s half, and enjoyed 37% of the football, so they needed a tough individual play now, and got a shot when Montoya lost the footy into a Frizell tackle.
Marcelo was baying out for a penalty, but the replay clearly showed this as a loose carry, while the Knights had a much-needed set in the opposition twenty. All their struggles over the last ten minutes reached a crisis when Thompson played the ball in front of a sprawling Sironen where the dummy half should have been – and were converted into brilliance when Kurt Mann, fresh off the bench, leaned in to scoop up the Steeden, before dummying left, planting a fend into Tevaga, and banging past the left padding with Josh Curran on his back.
It was exactly the transformative individual play the Knights had needed, bringing them back to a ten point lead as Miller added the extras, before they settled into a barnstorming restart, and got another bump in position when Curran dummied one time too many and flicked the footy forward late in the following New Zealand count. Add a Walker hand in the ruck, and the Knights nabbed another set in the red zone, and another try soon after, when Hastings sent the cut-out to Best, who responded with a bullet assist to set Marzhew up for a double.
Finding himself with nowhere to move on the wing, the ex-Titan pivoted so hard off the left boot that Pompey barely got fingers to him as he brought it back behind the crossbar to gift Miller an easy two. Yet as quickly as the Knights had hit back against the Warriors, the visitors responded in kind, as CNK took over the game management from his halfback, with his silkiest run and dummy of the night – good enough that when Ford hit the footy at speed he charged through a hole immediately, and only had to smash through Miller to plant the four down.
After a Warriors-dominant third quarter, the game had reached its most explosive to-and-fro with seven minutes on the clock – and exhausted it too, since these would be the last points scored for either team tonight. New Zealand continued their trend of scoring the final try in every game this season, while the Knights got some closure in regulation time after the agonising draw against the Sea Eagles last weekend – a good gee up for the imposing task of playing hosts next week to a Penrith outfit that absolutely trounced the Sea Eagles on Friday.
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