The exile of Jackson Hastings to the Intrust Super Premiership might be over with Manly five-eighth Lachlan Croker suffering a suspected anterior cruciate ligament in the heartbreaking 18-12 loss to Newcastle at Lottoland.
With scores locked at 12-12 and five minutes left, no-one in the Knights line-up had kicked a field goal in an NRL game. Stand-in No.7 Connor Watson was screaming for the ball in centre field but the ball went down the left side and Nathan Ross went over in the corner.
So the post-Mitchell Pearce period for the Knights is off to a flying start. And the man himself was cheering in the coach's box with his arm in a sling after surgery this week on a torn pectoral muscle.
It was devastation for Manly. With Croker's injury and a failed concussion test for winger Matthew Wright, the Sea Eagles were down to 15 men before halftime.
The home side led 6-4 at the break after tries to Connor Watson (Knights) and Dylan Walker (Sea Eagles). That closeness remained all night, with the lead changing three times and twice scores being locked up.
But a succession of errors at the wrong time handed the Sea Eagles their sixth loss for the year – and their fourth in a row.
Still everyone's thoughts at Lottoland were with Croker. It seemed an innocuous tackle in the 31st minute by Knights prop Daniel Saifiti, but the former Canberra half immediately grabbed at his left leg. He walked unassisted from the field, after some initial treatment by medical staff, but was wiping tears from his eyes as he went off.
Match: Sea Eagles v Knights
Round 8 -
Venue: Lottoland, Sydney
It brought utility Lewis Brown off the bench into hooker with regular No.9 Api Koroisau moving into No.6, where he played a few games in 2016 before the arrival of Blake Green in 2017.
Croker had the five-eighth role to himself in 2018 but a knee reconstruction – his third ACL – would put an end to his season. He would also be the third Manly player to suffer an ACL this year after forwards Curtis Sironen and Kelepi Tanginoa.
Newcastle know the feeling. They lost Pearce last weekend for more than three months. His replacement Jack Cogger had a relatively game, as did five-eighth Watson returning early from a shoulder injury. But Watson did score a spectacular try in the 16th minute when he did a complete forward roll with tackler Croker underneath him and somehow managed to place the toe of the ball on the grass in the process.
Obviously the Knights missed Pearce's kicking game and direction. But although starved of possession early, which didn't help Cogger and Watson's cause, there is a doggedness to the Knights that coach Nathan Brown knows is worth bottling.
The Sea Eagles have conceded 132 points in their past four games – the losses to Gold Coast, Wests Tigers, Parramatta and now the Knights.
On top of their 19-18 win in round one, it means the the Knights have defeated Manly twice in the one season for the first time since 1999.
And it was the first time since 2006 that the Knights had tasted success at Lottoland.
It doesn't get any easier for Manly. They have a fairly thin roster again and they face the Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium next Sunday.. The Knights host South Sydney at McDonald Jones Stadium.