WHEN the curtain’s drawn on season ’09, Newcastle may well reflect on this win as their gutsiest of the year.
Coming off a big loss to the Cowboys and with a handful of their best players sidelined either injured or on Origin duty, the Knights were every chance of being outgunned by the powerful Bulldogs. But these are precisely the circumstances in which veteran coach Brian Smith tends to revel, and he clearly had his charges primed for a mighty effort.
Newcastle fans can take their pick of which half of football was the more impressive: the first, in which the Knights withstood early raids on their line before pouncing with 20 unanswered points of their own; or the second, in which they held firm in the face of a spirited and predictable Canterbury resurgence to claim their ninth straight win at home and a place in the top four nearing the season’s halfway point.
There can now be little doubt that the Knights are the real deal and capable of holding that top-four spot to the end. The suspicion they’d be impotent in attack without their star, Kurt Gidley, proved unfounded, with Jarrod Mullen stepping up in the first half to put his team out to a big lead. This is a unit packed with pace and power that no opponent should take lightly. Newcastle’s second-half tally amounted to two points from a penalty goal, but there was never a minute when they appeared to be sitting on their lead and willing the siren to sound.
Coming off a terrific win against the Storm, the Bulldogs were a little flat to begin with, and were done no favours by the match officials in the first half. But coach Kevin Moore would not be too disappointed by what he saw, save for a trace of panic that appeared in the Dogs’ football late in the match. This was anyone’s game with 20 minutes left, the visitors having stacked on three tries in quick time to trail by six. While the Knights of the recent past might have wilted, this depleted version of the ’09 model showed its mettle in a manner no keen observer will have failed to notice.
The Game Swung When… In the eighth minute, having defended grimly through wave after wave of Bulldogs attack, the Knights responded with a daring play, Jarrod Mullen spiralling the pass-of-the-season to his right to catch out the Dogs’ compressed defensive line. On the next play, Mullen popped a shorter ball for Richard Fa’aoso to put the Knights on the board. Coming entirely against the run of play, the six-pointer seemed to stun the ’Dogs, who went to the break trailing by 20.
Who Was Hot… Mullen, whose diverse passing game built the Knights’ match-winning lead. He also kicked superbly late in the game when his opponents were threatening to steal the show.
NSW fans will have watched his performance with a degree of unease. Would the Blues stand a better chance in Origin I had selectors found a place for Mullen in the halves? On the basis of this showing, it’s hard to believe otherwise.
Who Was Not… Hazem El Masri, whose magical right boot took a day off. The whiz missed two conversions (both from wide out, to be fair) when the ’Dogs were surging in the second half.
Taking a shot at El Masri for his goal-kicking may seem a bit rich, but it’s a tough world and the facts are this was a three-tries-each match and his counterpart, Wes Naiqama, kicked five from five.
Also, in the first half, an El Masri blunder in his in-goal almost cost a try, and he struggled to make a dent in attack.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Over the years, wingers and fullbacks have occasionally pushed their luck while willing opposition kicks to go dead, but the Knights’ Wes Naiqama took wishful thinking to the limit late in the first half. The big man chaperoned a bobbling ball for what seemed like an eternity as Bulldog Jamal Idris closed in. Sure enough, Idris got there first and it was only a gift from above that spared Naiqama the indignity of conceding a try [see Refs Watch].
Bad Boys… None – one of the cleanest games of the year.
Refs Watch… Jason Robinson and Tony De Las Heras went okay, though there was a bit of a sense the Knights got all the breaks in the first half, before the Bulldogs had their turn in the second.
The centremen also had a tough time distinguishing a strip from a lost ball and vice versa. But the dud call of the day belonged to video ref Paul Simpkins, who somehow found a way to rule no-try to the Idris touchdown described above.
Whether your criterion is downward pressure, an absence of separation or any other term, Idris clearly did enough to get the nod. On top of the infamous no-try ruling against him at the end of the recent ’Dogs-Dragons game, Idris must be wondering what mirror he cracked or ladder he walked under.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Jarrod Mullen (Knights): Put his team out of reach with some sublime passing in the first half, and made 434 metres with his boot; 2 points – Junior Sau (Knights): Loves a run this fella, and had 18 of them for 169 metres; 1 point – Michael Hodgson (Bulldogs): Never stopped toiling, matching Sau’s 169 metres up the guts.
Knights 22 (R Fa’aoso, S Dureau, C Mika tries; W Naiqama 5 goals) def Bulldogs 14 (J Idris, J Morris, B Goodwin tries; H El Masri goal) at EnergyAustralia Stadium. Crowd: 18,322.