Gritty, not pretty was how Knights coach Adam O’Brien described Newcastle’s 10-6 victory over New Zealand Warriors at a wet, windswept McDonald Jones Stadium.
Now for the challenge of making that the start of a late-season surge for the top eight.
Having lost four of their previous five and looking anything but finals contenders, the Knights were desperate for a win to breathe life back into their campaign, and it took a 76th minute try by makeshift centre Brodie Jones to break a 6-6 deadlock.
Though Newcastle only moved from 14th to 12th with the win, veteran halfback Mitchell Pearce made a successful return from a torn pectoral muscle and Kalyn Ponga (groin) is due back against the Cowboys in a fortnight.
"That [win over the Warriors] was really important. We’ve spoken about the back-end of the year, getting some personnel back, but getting on a roll," O’Brien said.
Match: Knights v Warriors
Round 15 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
"There is some congestion around some teams on the ladder so tonight was worth four points with the bye – we haven’t had a bye yet – so that’s going to help.
"I thought we were really brave and tough and gritty, which is the performance that we want to build our game and our club and our town on."
Pearce’s composure under pressure when the game hung in the balance was critical, and he set up Jones’s winning try after Enari Tuala and Connor Watson went close on the previous play.
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Though their last-tackle attacking options were not always well executed, Pearce and new halves partner Jake Clifford made life tough for the Warriors in the second half with their superior kicking game.
They made the most of a gale-force wind at their backs and driving rain to target rookie fullback Reece Walsh with a series of spiralling bombs, and Walsh’s inability to defuse them allowed the Knights to build pressure and dominate field position.
With Ponga likely to return against the Cowboys in Newcastle on July 3, and a bye to follow that, O’Brien believes the Knights can build momentum and climb the ladder as Ponga, Clifford, Pearce and dummy-half Jayden Brailey establish combinations.
"As a half, and he’s dreaming about his return, he’s probably not thinking cyclonic conditions, but we were a better team for having Mitchell out there, definitely," O’Brien said of Pearce's return to action.
"We’ll be a better team in the next game by having him with this group at training next week.
"We’ll get Kalyn back, and the longer we have this spine playing and training together, then we’re only going to get better and better and have a big back-end of the year for us."
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On Ponga’s projected return, after several false starts in the past month that included Origin I for Queensland, O’Brien said the match-winning fullback would be closely monitored.
"We’ll just take this week as it comes," he said.
"He’s got a pretty thorough training program to get through this week, and if he does all of that, then I’m really confident that he’ll play in the next game."
O’Brien praised Brayley, who ran down Walsh to save a try in the 15th minute then pressured Walsh into missing a field goal with five minutes to go and the scores locked at 6-6, among other "massive moments" in the game.
One of those was the 10-minute passage punctuated by half-time when the Knights did not concede a point while back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon was in the sin-bin.
"That was what I gave the boys a rap for at half-time, being able to be resilient and hang in there into the wind with Fitz off, and I think we only went through two interchanges in that first half," O’Brien said.
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Utility Kurt Mann, who was switched from centre to fullback to replace Tex Hoy, will have scans on an ankle injury that forced him off in the 62nd minute but O’Brien did not believe it was serious.
Fitzgibbon, who scored Newcastle’s first try in the 30th minute, was sin-binned and reported for a high tackle on Warriors five-eighth Kodi Nikorima four minutes later.
Knights prop Jacob Saifiti was reported for a high shot on Warriors try-scorer Euan Aitken in the 72nd.