IT was billed as the semi-finals arriving a week early, but unfortunately for Penrith they didn’t bring their A game to EnergyAustralia Stadium.
In front of their inspirational brigade of ‘Old Boys’, the Knights cruised to victory against the Panthers – booking seventh place in this year’s top eight and a date with the Bulldogs on Saturday night.
It was do or die – a knockout match – but Penrith were knocked out by the occasion and were sadly inadequate.
Despite having loads of opportunities in the first half, Matt Elliott’s men failed to trouble the scorers – and really didn’t look like registering a try all afternoon.
Post-game Elliott said he was proud of his troops but admitted to being bitterly disappointed with the dismal fashion in which Penrith finished the season.
Just like the Wests Tigers, the Panthers have yet again let an opportunity to make the finals slide.
Newcastle were themselves far from brilliant, but it was a marked improved from the week before, when they lost badly to the Canberra Raiders.
Kurt Gidley started the afternoon on the right note for Knights’ fans, crossing after some brilliant lead-up work by Adam MacDougall.
Jarrod Mullen crossed for a simple individual try in the 15th minute after effortlessly cruising through some poor Penrith defence.
A Scott Dureau field-goal on the stroke of halftime gave Newcastle a solid 13-0 lead at the break that was always going to be difficult to run down.
When Gidley started and finished an enterprising piece of play just three minutes into the second half, the match was as good as over… and Penrith had to play 40 painful minutes where they knew their season was counting down.
The Game Swung When… The team sheets were finalised an hour before kick-off and the name ‘Petero Civoniceva’ was absent. The Queensland and Kangaroos prop was apparently very close to making a shock return for the match. His presence in the side would have been huge for the Panthers, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to recover from a serious toe injury in time.
Petero had been racing the clock to make it back – heartbreakingly he would have certainly been right next week had the Panthers won through to the semi-finals.
It’s difficult to pin-point a turning point other than this psychological blow, which was delivered well before kick-off. The players would have known their inspirational leader was a chance and it would have been a letdown when they were told he wouldn’t be available. Penrith certainly didn’t play like a team who thought they were any chance of winning.
Who Was Hot: ‘Mad Dog’ Adam MacDougall had an outstanding game for the Knights, taking care of Michael Jennings on the right edge. MacDougall said post-match that playing against the emerging stars of the game fires him up and he was certainly up for the challenge.
Jennings saw very little ball and never looked like making a bust on MacDougall’s watch. Like a fine wine Mad Dog has been getting better with age and on Sunday afternoon, in front of a packed house, he turned in a memorable performance in front of the Knights’ ‘Old Boys’ – many of them his former team-mates.
MacDougall scored a powerful second-half try, made four tackle breaks, a line break, got away an offload and started the movement for the opening try.
Who Was Not: Frank Pritchard was a letdown for Penrith yet again. ‘Frank the Tank’ is one of the most explosive players in the competition when he wants to play, but too often he doesn’t aim up in the big games.
Elliott needed a huge performance from Pritchard, but he was sadly very quiet. Pritchard made just 17 tackles and made two errors in an underwhelming display. Halfback Luke Walsh tried hard but he couldn’t come up with the right pass, especially in the first half when Penrith had chances on the left edge.
That said, he didn’t get much help from Pritchard and his outside men, who couldn’t time their runs effectively.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed: Seventeen errors by Penrith was mind-boggling. On an afternoon when their season was on the line, the Panthers looked more like wooden spooners than top-eight contenders.
They made nearly twice as many mistakes as their opponents, coughing up the ball continuously in prime real estate down Newcastle’s end.
Nine Panthers made unforced errors – Michael Gordon, Brad Tighe and Wade Graham came up with three each, while Pritchard and Gavin Cooper each contributed two.
Injuries: Gavin Cooper was forced off the field in the 33rd minute with a hamstring problem, while Isaac De Gois is a major concern for Newcastle. The star hooker managed just 41 minutes after suffering a knee injury. He’s waiting for results from scans to determine if he can play against the Bulldogs this Saturday night.
Refs Watch: Gave both teams every opportunity with a big 10 metres. But the men with the whistle aren’t allowed to catch the ball – which unfortunately is what Penrith needed.
NRL.com Best & Fairest: 3 points – Adam MacDougall (Knights): Defensively he was terrific all afternoon and looked damaging with ball in hand. Made 95 metres from six runs; 2 points – Kurt Gidley (Knights): Returned to his best, running a game-high 185 metres, and bagging a double; 1 point – Matt Hilder (Knights): Was shifted to hooker a couple of times when De Gois left the field and had a big game. Made 30 tackles, a line break, three tackle breaks, 70 metres and scored a well-deserved try.
Knights 35 (K Gidley 2, J Mullen, A MacDougall, M Hilder, C Vuna tries; K Gidley 5 goals; S Dureau field-goal) def Panthers 0 at EnergyAustralia Stadium. Crowd: 22,152.