After watching his big-game players Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga lead the Knights to a season-saving 42-6 win over the Cowboys, coach Nathan Brown said he wasn't surprised by the way the pair had responded to being challenged.
Pearce and Ponga scored two tries each, Pearce laid on another for back-rower Mitchell Barnett, and they combined with each other and hooker Connor Watson to run amok around the rucks as the Knights snapped a six-game losing streak to keep their finals hopes alive.
Brown asked Pearce to concentrate more on himself than worry so much about his team-mates, and Ponga bore the brunt of criticism from commentators and some fans for being below his best in recent weeks and laughing with opponents after Newcastle’s 20-14 loss to Parramatta last Saturday.
“Hopefully today we get a lot of confidence out of what happened. Some good players played well, didn’t they,” Brown said.
“Obviously Pearcey had some really nice touches and Kalyn again, off the back of a lot of hard work from their team-mates, they got an opportunity to play some footy.”
Brown was not even certain Ponga, an unflappable character, was aware of everything that had been said or written about him in the lead-up to the game.
“Look, Pearcey’s been getting a hard time for a lot of his life, I suppose, about lots of things, but for Kalyn, I don’t think he’s ever been given a hard time before … but he showed his qualities,” he said.
“It was not too much of a bother for him … and he certainly got it right at training and he got it right on the field.
“He’s a good kid, KP, and he always prepares really well. By his own call, he’d probably tell you that he’s had a couple of quieter weeks in a number of areas of his game, but he certainly cares a lot, regardless of how he is after a game.
“His involvements today, there were quite a lot of them and of high standard … so that was great, but I’m not too sure whether that negative publicity affected KP or not.
“I’m not even sure if he reads half of it, to be honest with you. I’m lucky to get him to watch a game of footy.”
Ponga said he had discussed his recent form with Brown and assistant coach James Shepherd and heeded their advice to concentrate on what he does best.
“Probably on two ends of the footy, in terms of being good in attack and defence, I took my opportunities and played with eyes up, and that’s sort of my strength,” Ponga said.
“Just to go back to my strengths. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been throwing passes and trying to kick but I just had to come back to what I’m good at and keep doing it.”
Pearce praised the efforts of Newcastle’s forwards, whose superior line speed and control of the rucks allowed the playmakers time and space to be creative.
“No doubt when you have a clear head, you play better footy, but there’s a lot of dynamics to a game of footy. I know when I’m playing in a clear headspace, I’ll always play good footy,” Pearce told reporters.
“I thought today, as a group, we kicked the door in. There was plenty of quick play-the-balls, and it makes you look good as a half, that’s for sure, so it comes off the back of the forwards."
Newcastle (20 points) climbed to ninth, two points behind eighth-placed Penrith (22), to set up what is effectively an elimination game against Wests Tigers (20) at Campbelltown next Saturday.
“The great thing is we’re still alive … so next week we get to play the Tigers for an opportunity, rather than just play for playing, I suppose,” Brown said.
“That’s the really pleasing thing, and the Tigers are in the same boat. We’re both on similar points so the winner’s going to have a chance to move forward and the loser’s going to be out, so you’d expect it to be a good contest.”