THE erratic genius that is Benji Marshall set hearts pounding as the Wests Tigers halfback dazzled in the Leumeah sunshine to deliver his side a last-gasp win against a befuddled Knights.
It was a performance – and a match – that will live long in the memory. In 20 magical minutes Marshall served up to his team-mates three glorious tries and a stunning sideline conversion. All this after a monumentally awful start by the Tigers; they trailed Newcastle 18-6 at the break and were staring at a 24-10 loss with only a skerrick of time left.
An error-riddled first half had them leading the penalty count 5-0 at one stage, with Marshall culprit no.1, having kicked the ball out on the full three times, twice from the start of play. (To be fair, however, he was still shaking off the flu and suffering from a corked thigh.)
Coming off three straight wins, the Knights started with a ton of pizzazz. Yet it was the home side that scored first, courtesy of inspired work by Beau Ryan, who, held up by God-strings, somehow caught the ball out of the field of play and batted it down to Dean Collis: 6-0.
But 12 minutes later it was all for nought after Knights lock Matt Hilder levelled the scores following some nifty work around the ruck by Kurt Gidley and Isaac De Gois. The heavyweight Newcastle pack’s picnic in the park improved even more when converted tries by second-rower Chris Houston (24th minute) and prop Danny Wicks (34th minute) stretched the Knights’ lead to 18-6 at half-time.
It was a very different Wests Tigers who emerged after the break. Only seven minutes in, winger Taniela Tuiaki steamrolled over the line only to be held up by Gidley. Not to be denied, John Morris crossed over two minutes later after vital input from Tim Moltzen and Marshall. The latter missed the kick but at 18-10 the Tigers were back with a chance – only to have it rudely snatched away when Jarrod Mullen replied with a solo effort that took the score to 22-10, with Gidley’s conversion adding two more points and appearing to seal Wests Tigers’ fate.
Enter Benji, exit Knights. Embarrassed with himself for his first-half performance, it was as if someone had suddenly switched on a light. In the 62nd minute, he skipped past four defenders, leaving them grasping at air, before offloading to Ryan. His kick narrowed the score to 24-16.
Seven minutes later it was Collis’ turn; he went over for an unconverted second try courtesy of a John Morris bomb: 24-20. Then, in the 74th minute, all watched in amazement as Marshall, like a gambolling lamb, stepped, weaved, dummied and feinted his way through the Knights before lofting a pass to Collis, who dived low past two defenders to score his hat-trick. This was it: even-Stephens, kick to come. Poised by the sideline, and with the wind doing strange things, Marshall then kicked a ball that was a two-pointer from the second it left his boot. What a player.
The Game Swung When… The Knights’ bench began to look like an understaffed emergency ward. To be sure, Newcastle took their eyes off the prize in the second half but they never seemed entirely out of it until a terrible run of injuries began to sap their spirit and strength.
Who Was Hot… Marshall aside, Ryan and Collis scintillated with their skills and were rewarded accordingly, while in the forwards Keith Galloway was in rambunctious form (171 metres, 13 carries, 22 bone-jarring tackles, and a forte for piggybacking his opponents).
For the Knights, Mullen was almost up there with Marshall, kicking cleverly except for a last-half banana bender, and scoring a neat try. Isaac De Gois continues to impress as hooker, picking up where Danny Buderus left off. While not having many opportunities, James McManus did some great things on the wing, justifying the selectors’ faith in him. And as usual, Kurt Gidley let nobody down.
Who Was Not… No stand-out shockers, although until he redeemed himself Marshall was heading for one. The whole Newcastle side should hang their heads for their second-half sleep walk.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Midway through the first half, 111-kilogram Danny Wicks forgot that the natural habitat of props is the earth, and leapt high above terra firma to reel in a kick with two hands outstretched and score spectacularly.
Injuries… Wests Tigers took to the field without Chris Heighington (ankle). Newcastle were already without Adam MacDougall (illness) and Cory Paterson (emotionally drained), and a dreadful injury toll only worsened their day. Prop Ben Cross’ season is over after a biceps tear. At last report Mullen was still awaiting the results of an MRI scan after a heavy knock to his shoulder. Also in doubt for the upcoming clash with Brisbane were Ben Rogers (knee), Wes Naiqama (hamstring) and Junior Sau (sternum).
Bad Boys: The game was played in fine style, with barely a finger wagged. Although, the match review committee found fault with a Ben Rogers tackle and hit him with a dangerous contact charge; with an early guilty plea he’ll be okay to play this week.
Refs Watch… The Knights feel they were robbed a minute from full-time when they were only giving an impression of being dead. Richie Fa'aoso had delivered Junior Sau a four-on-one overlap from which Zeb Taia appeared certain to score. The groans in the Hunter were almost audible after Jason Robinson called him back 30 metres for a forward pass from Fa'aoso. Few would agree that it was.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers): Say no more; imagine what he would have been like if wasn’t feeling sick and sorry; 2 points – Beau Ryan (Wests Tigers): His acrobatics in setting up Collis’ first try were worth the price of admission even without Marshall; 1 point – Keith Galloway (Wests Tigers): The second-rower was a runaway fire truck all game.
Wests Tigers 26 (D Collis 3, J Morris, B Ryan tries; B Marshall 3 goals) def Knights 24 (M Hilder, C Houston, J Mullen, D Wicks tries; K Gidley 4 goals) at Campbelltown Sports Stadium. Crowd: 17,898.