YOU would have put your mate’s house on Manly 15 minutes or so into the match. They brought with them a conservative game plan that was working a treat. It was basic stuff – quick play-the-balls, straight running, kick early, chase hard, no penalties – but it wasn’t mindless bash and barge. The passes were short and flat, and angles were run that ensured good metres. Newcastle were seeing little of the ball and looking innocuous with what they had. The visitors scored early through Steve Matai and seemed poised finally to kick-start their sputtering title defence.
Then, over a few minutes, the momentum shifted. Manly’s clinical start petered out and the Knights took control. Five-eighth Ben Rogers got them going with clever passes for two quick tries that had them 10-6 ahead at the break. Newcastle kept their foot on the pedal through the second half, often trying their luck from inside their own half and running the defending premiers ragged. They made a lot of mistakes, finishing with a 48 per cent share of possession, but were twice as daring and dangerous as Des Hasler’s men.
In defence, they had the answers to Manly’s limited range of attacking questions. This was their first home match of the year and a below-strength unit gave their raucous fans a terrific all-round performance.
Where to now for Manly? The back-to-basics strategy yielded just 20 impressive minutes. Sure, they could try to fine-tune it, but it wasn’t butter fingers that cost the Sea Eagles, who completed 80 per cent of their sets. Their confidence around their ankles, they panicked at the first sign of trouble. They’re missing two blokes who could be relied on for points. Brett Stewart returns next week, though in what state is anyone’s guess. Beaver Menzies is gone for good.
Footnote: Running his eye over the 16 teams during the pre-season, Newcastle coach Brian Smith said only Manly were certainties to do well. A month in, they’re last.
The Game Swung When… Midway through the first half, the Knights received their first penalty. Not long after, Matt Orford put a clearing kick out on the full. It was also around this time that the visitors tossed in some dropped ball after a flawless start. In other words, having done little but defend, it was Newcastle’s turn to play. And it soon became obvious they had the skill and ideas to stack on some points.
Who Was Hot… Newcastle’s forwards did their job, but the stars were in the backs. Centre Adam MacDougall was playing big-time rugby league when Tina Turner was on board. “Mad Dog” turns 34 next month, but moved like a 20-year-old against Manly, threatening on every touch.
To his right, James McManus resembled the original “Flying Scot” Eric Liddell. And Kurt Gidley was all class.
Who Was Not… Matt Orford. Desperate for a win, Manly needed a little more from their captain and halfback than he was able to give. He tried his darnedest, and set up the first try with a neat kick, but two kicks out on the full either side of half-time were costly, and too many of his last-tackle grubbers were chaperoned harmlessly dead by Gidley and friends. And if Orford’s the conductor… well, the orchestra didn’t seem to know what it was doing in patches toward the end.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… MacDougall’s flick pass to McManus to set up Gidley’s 72nd-minute try looked like something from a Benji Marshall highlights reel. In fact, the whole movement was a thing of beauty, a wonderful rugby league try in which the centre makes the bust, the winger uses footwork and speed to keep it going, and the fullback looms on the inside to finish it off.
Bad Boys… Not one. There were plenty of solid hits, but nothing dirty. Anthony Watmough almost got himself sin-binned for back-chatting, but that’s as nasty as things got.
Refs Watch… Solid enough games from Jared Maxwell and Alan Shortall. There were a few 50-50 calls one could quibble over, but nothing outrageous or game-changing.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Adam MacDougall (Knights): The veteran was the Knight most likely to bust the line even when the home team was struggling early on: 15 runs for 169 metres and no mistakes; 2 points – Kurt Gidley (Knights): Busy, probing and solid at the back: 26 runs for 240 metres; 1 point – James McManus (Knights): In attack, the flyer from Banff, Scotland contributed 164 metres and two line-breaks.
Knights 26 (Z Taia, J Sau, J McManus, A Uate, K Gidley tries; Gidley 3 goals) def Sea Eagles 12 (S Matai, S Neumann tries; M Orford 1 goal, S Rodney 1 goal) at EnergyAustralia Stadium. Crowd: 15,324.