Newcastle emerged from a bleak week on a grey day to thump Gold Coast 38-4 at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday, keeping their faint finals hopes alive for at least another 24 hours.
Under the guidance of interim coach Kristian Woolf, who replaced Nathan Brown four days earlier, and in the presence of about 100 former players attending 'Old Boys’ Day', the Knights overcame a shaky start to post seven unanswered tries against the wooden-spooners.
Heavy rain for much of the previous 24 hours contributed to Newcastle’s lowest home crowd of the season, and worst in 22 years – since 1997. But their meek surrender to Wests Tigers seven days earlier (46-4) and the circumstances surrounding Brown’s departure played at least some part in just 8,274 fans attending.
In handing the hapless Titans their 10th straight loss, the Knights joined Wests Tigers and Penrith on 22 points and climbed to ninth on the ladder because of their superior for-and-against differential, but the Tigers and Panthers have games in hand.
The Knights play the Panthers at Penrith next Sunday in the last game of the regular season but need a sequence of other results to go their way to give them any hope heading into that match.
Match: Knights v Titans
Round 24 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Newcastle recovered from a sloppy start to lead the Titans 24-4 at half-time, running in three converted tries in an eight-minute blitz late in the first half to take total control.
Back-rower Mitchell Barnett scored a try from a Connor Watson pass in the 29th minute, returned the favour by throwing the final pass for Watson to score in the 37th, and Mason Lino intercepted a pass and combined with rookie Bradman Best for Hymel Hunt to score a long-range try in the 33rd.
Lino and Watson caused the Titans problems out of dummy-half and by implementing several short-side attacking raids aimed at Gold Coast’s fragile left edge.
Running with a strong southerly at their backs for the first half, the Knights took a while to take full advantage. They made a disastrous start, conceding two early penalties and a try to Titans halfback Ryley Jacks in the first four minutes.
Lino was penalised for an escort, protecting fullback Kalyn Ponga, then he and Sione Mata’utia could not stop Jacks close to the line on Newcastle’s right edge. Michael Gordon missed the conversion attempt to leave the Titans 4-0 in front, but that was as good as it got for the visitors.
Newcastle went some way to making amends with a strong defensive set from the kick-off but Ponga put the Knights back under pressure when he spilled the Titans clearing kick.
There was a messy end to Newcastle's next attacking set when Lino forced a pass and skipper Mitchell Pearce eventually knocked on under pressure from Gold Coast's scrambling defence.
Crazy passage of play finishes with Hunt try
The Titans conceded a string of penalties to allow the Knights to set up camp in their red zone, allowing Pearce to take a short pass from David Klemmer and stroll through untouched to score in the 13th minute.
Lino converted to give the Knights a 6-4 lead and they never trailed again.
Newcastle had the better of possession and field position to control the tempo and created several scoring chances but could only convert three to establish their 24-4 lead at the break.
Ponga's pass at the end of a Newcastle back-line shift created the first try of Best's career in the 46th minute, and the 18-year-old NSW and Australian junior representative quickly disappeared in a huddle of back-slapping teammates.
Lino and Barnett combined for Mata’utia to score in the 52nd minute, then back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who had started the game on the bench, crashed over out wide in the 78th minute to score Newcastle’s seventh try but Lino could not add the extras.