Kalyn Ponga hogged the headlines after leading Newcastle to a 38-0 shut-out of North Queensland in his comeback match at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night, and rightly so.
But it was the performance of another former Cowboy against his old club that left long-suffering Knights fans feeling excited about their team’s prospects in the final nine rounds of the season.
Five-eighth Jake Clifford showed touches of class with the ball, and desperation in defence, to suggest coach Adam O’Brien’s 18-month search for a fixture at No.6 might finally be over.
It was only Clifford’s fourth game for the Knights since leaving the Cowboys last month, and his first for Newcastle alongside his great mate Ponga, but O’Brien is convinced those two players plus half Mitchell Pearce and hooker Jayden Brailey will form a spine around which to build a successful team.
“It’s only the start and I’m sure we’re only going to get better,” Clifford told NRL.com.
Match Highlights: Knights v Cowboys
“We’ve got a bye weekend coming up this week so we can tidy a few things up to make things run a bit smoother and get us into better positions, but for a first night all together, I thought we were pretty good.”
Clifford’s attacking kicks in the first half set up two of Newcastle’s first three tries, scored by Ponga and utility Connor Watson, and he started the left-edge passing movement that created Ponga’s second try for a 22-0 lead by the 27th minute.
In the 68th minute he pulled down Pearce’s bomb and flopped back a pass for Kurt Mann in another attacking raid that led to winger Dominic Young’s second try.
Just as important was Clifford’s last-ditch tackle on Cowboys speedster Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to deny the visitors a try in the eighth minute, when Newcastle only led 4-0. The Knights had to produce similar efforts in the final minutes of the first half to keep their line intact.
“To hold a team like that, that can score a lot of points, to hold them to zero is a credit to our team and our attitude,” Clifford said.
“We were up 22-0 a couple of minutes before half-time so to show that steel, to not let them score and let them back into the game, it just shows where we’re going as a club coming into the back end of the year and hopefully we can just keep building off that.”
Six weeks earlier, Clifford played halfback in the Cowboys team that over-powered the Knights 36-20 in Townsville, making him the only player to have been on the winning side in both meetings between those clubs this year.
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The 23-year-old Cairns-born playmaker said he avoided any pre-game banter with his former Cowboys teammates last week, and was more concerned about the possibility of any of them testing positive to coronavirus after several cases were reported in Townsville.
Clifford had a rough start to his stint in Newcastle, going down 40-4 to Parramatta on Knights Old Boys’ Day on June 6, but the Knights have won their past two games and get a week off before resuming against the Storm in Melbourne in round 18.
“That time I debuted was still a special time, even though we didn’t get the result,” he said.
“We had a few boys out injured that day but now we’re starting to get them all back and build a good connection now, so it was good to get a win over the old club. Just being there five weeks ago, it was good to get one over them, so I was happy with how the boys played.”
In footy and in life, be there for an offload
O’Brien believed Clifford had improved each week in his first four appearances in Newcastle colours, and playing important roles in back-to-back wins against the Warriors and Cowboys would only help build his confidence.
“The more time he spends with Kalyn, the more time he spends with Mitchell, with ‘Brails’, with Connor, they’re naturally going to improve every week, and that’s what he’s done,” O’Brien said.
“He’s a great kid to coach, very willing, smart, and knows the game really well. He fits in.”
Ponga and Clifford were teammates in the Cowboys under 20s squad in 2017 and were named in the NYC team of the year that season. It was only fitting then that Ponga presented Clifford with his first Knights jersey before the game against the Eels.
“Since he’s come to the club, he’s been a great asset for us around training, and he’s a good mate of mine so it’s been good to reconnect in that sense,” Ponga said post-match.
“He’s a good player, has been for a long time, and for us it’s just about building on tonight as a spine and as a team.”
Welcome back, Kalyn Ponga
Clifford said Ponga, whose game against the Cowboys was his first in almost two months because of a groin injury, generated confidence among all his teammates.
“Having ‘K’ out there, he’s such a threat on the park and he makes people pay less attention to us because he’s such an instinctive player and he can create anything,” Clifford said.
“You just give him the ball and he can do some things.
“Having ‘K’ back this week was really nice, and we’re only going to get better and our combinations are only going to get stronger the more we play together, so I can’t wait to build on it.”