This clash was always about survival. For the Knights it was simply about winning at all costs and living to fight another day in the 2009 season – for the Bulldogs it was about fighting for credibility and proving they could win without their injured star halfback Brett Kimmorley. It took only 30 seconds of game time – the second tackle of the match, a Ben Hannant hit-up – for the signs of who would prevail in this match to emerge.
The Game Swung When... In just that first set of six the Knights’ luck – which they rode all season – dried up and they were left short of star hooker Isaac De Gois. The former Shark’s knee – which was injured in a previous match and had him in doubt until kick-off – forced him from the field and prompted a hasty reshuffle. Matt Hilder and Kurt Gidley shared the dummy-half responsibilities and did well... but De Gois’ attacking raids around the ruck, as well as his strong defence and quality service, were sorely missed.
To add further insult to injury, just a minute later Steve Simpson aggravated an arm injury. He courageously soldiered on for 39 minutes, albeit well below full health. His courage permeated through his team – with some committed defence rewarded by Junior Sau’s 15th-minute try for a 6-0 lead – but the shortage of troops proved a massive task the under-manned Knights weren’t up to.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed... Jamal Idris’ runaway-freight-train effort late in the first half showed just what opposition NRL sides can expect to deal with in the years to come.
The dreadlocked teenager received the football on his right side of the field up the blind side – and relished the staggered defensive line. Hair flying behind him, the hulking centre carved a path through the Knights – charging past two defenders before busting Richard Fa’aoso’s attempt – before angling his run to draw the final two defenders and flicking the ball behind his back, Benji-style, to Luke Patten to crash over for his first try.
Idris, who finished with a massive 14 tackle breaks for the night, is looming as the Bulldogs’ go-to man out wide as the race for the premiership heats up.
Who Was Hot... The recipient of that brilliant flick from Idris had an outstanding evening – Luke Patten, aka ‘The General’, provided added leadership to his young team in the absence of Kimmorley and played arguably his best game of the year.
The Bulldogs’ no.1 ran for 105 metres, made four tackle breaks and broke the line once, as well as scoring two tries. His brace of four-pointers in the first half proved the difference when the teams hit the sheds – and they broke the Knights’ momentum.
Bulldogs’ interchange forward Greg Eastwood played a blinder for 38 minutes, making 126 metres and five tackle breaks.
Who Was Not... Newcastle’s big men struggled all night and it was a major factor in the match result. The Bulldogs’ props and second-rowers had a field day with ball in hand – four of their pack ran for more than 100 metres, with Hannant leading the way with 158 metres – and the Knights just didn’t return serve.
Taufua ran for 82 metres, Houston ran 56, Simpson 27 and Taia and Karawana 38. In their biggest game of the year, that just wasn’t good enough against the team that should’ve won the minor premiership.
Refs Watch... Tony Archer and Jason Robinson had a tough ask early on – keeping a lid on two very enthusiastic teams prepared to put their bodies on the line.
It could be argued they didn’t do enough when Fa’aoso was placed on report for a swinging arm on Greg Eastwood. The same could be said of when fellow Knight Hilder was cautioned for an ugly tackle that resulted in a Bulldog spearing into the turf.
The good news for Archer and Robinson is they won’t have the pressure on them this week – the officials from the Titans-Broncos match will surely take that title.
Bad Boys… A few of them. Fa’aoso was charged over his high tackle but won’t serve any time on the sideline with an early guilty plea.
However, Matt Hilder is looking at missing the first two weeks of 2010 and Steve Simpson the season opener after being hit with Dangerous Throw charges.
Injuries... The Knights would’ve been in trouble had they won the match and were to play in Finals Week Two – with injuries to Simpson and De Gois. But for Newcastle fans no such luck.
The news is much better for ’Dogs fans – as one of the two top-ranked winners they have the week of. With no injury concerns and an additional week for Kimmorley to recuperate, all well on the western Sydney front – for Bulldogs fans at least.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Luke Patten (Bulldogs): In a team of star contributors ‘The General’ delivered a truly five-star effort in attack and defence; 2 points – Ben Hannant (Bulldogs): Led the way with a rampaging display. Nice try, too; 1 point – Cooper Vuna (Knights): Rallied Newcastle with 121 metres and seven tackle breaks.
Bulldogs 26 (L Patten 2, J Morris, B Hannant tries; H El Masri five goals) def Knights 12 (J Sau, S Dureau tries, K Gidley, S Dureau goal) at ANZ Stadium. Crowd: 21,369.