The Newcastle Knights might have had several new faces who slotted in nicely, but it was the experienced duo of Adam McDougall and Kurt Gidley that turned on the after-burners early. Both backs looking sharp and showing good speed to threaten in the first 5 minutes. Mad Dog looked to be particularly quicker than previous seasons and combined with the raw pace of Vuna – the Knights boast some serious weapons on the fringe.
As both teams struggled with last tackle options and simply ball security early on, it was the Raiders who weathered the early storm to put on first points through Lincoln Withers. The crafty dummy half sneaking over for a soft try from a metre out of dummy half.
The Raiders started to build some momentum from there and looked to be setting a good platform with some strong forward play and quick ruck speed from Withers. The Knights were helping their cause by giving away penalties and turning over possession frequently during this period; but somehow the Knights kept their defence together and scrambled well when needed – Brian Smith and his staff obviously working hard to stop their leaking line from last year.
The strong defence from the Knights was frustrating the Raiders, forcing them to push passes and ultimately leading to them turning over possession themselves. Jarrod Mullen then got the Knights back onto a roll with strong kicking, directing at the corners and getting strong metres for his team. Newcastle eventually started to get some cohesion in the halves after a late team change forced Mullen to pivot.
Around the 21m mark Lincoln Withers suffered a chest injury for the Raiders and the impact on his team was a big one. As Withers struggled to continue, his side started to really lose the momentum and missed his thrust from the play the ball. Allan Tongue and Scott Logan worked hard for the Raiders, but they were too one-dimensional in their attack for most of the match.
The Knights had come with a plan to attack the Raiders right hand defence and after busting it so many times with good runs from Corey Patterson and Cooper Vuna, Newcastle simply just couldn’t put the final pass together and literally went inches short several times.
In the 25m mark the Raiders got an extremely lucky call when referee Tony De La Heras made an absolute shocker of a call after Gidley shoulder charged a surrendering Phil Graham that lay on the ground. A totally legal tackle, Terry Campese took offence to it and started a scuffle that should have immediately been a Knights penalty. Somehow the officials got it wrong even after video review and the Raiders were let off lightly.
Canberra continued to struggle during this period and even though their impressive bench of Neville Costigan and Michael Weyman were injected into the game, it was the Raiders defence that was keeping them in the game. The Knights started to punch holes in them on both sides of the field but the Canberra men kept scrambling well.
What also helped the Radiers was the Knights taking wrong options in attack. As Newcastle made linebreaks all over the park, many through Kurt Gidley and his lightning speed somehow the Knights kept failing to take the correct final option. Seemingly starting to panic as the try line neared, Newcastle passed the wrong way and ran away from their support at times.
It seems Brian Smith has worked had to introduce more offloads into the Knights game with the majority of their forwards looking for second phase and this did give them more creativity in attack. It was the opposite for the Raiders tonight, continuing to play one-out single dimension football they kept their forward runs tight and close to the ruck and began to be picked off in big numbers by the Knights defenders.
Late in the first half, the Knights finally got the confidence boost they needed, a quick succession of tries firstly to Wes
Possession was now really favouring Newcastle as the strode into the sheds and the Raiders defence was cracking, missed tackles starting to really creep up for them at the halfway mark.
Neil Henry should have pushed his men to feed more ball to their outside backs in the second term, with limited touches new buy Joel Monaghan always looked confident and threatening and added some strike power out wide – but the Raiders simply didn’t feed him enough ball. It was the same for the likes of Purtell, who didn’t see the ball until too late in the game.
As the second half continued both sides dropped in intensity and struggled for precision as early season fatigue, reduced interchange and several injury problems crept in. Full of penalties and stop start play, neither side could get an upper-hand. The Knights continued to have more of the ball but failed to capitalize until a towering bomb was left to bounce by the Raiders allowing a second kick by Knight McManus which eventually allowed Danny Buderus to trail through and cleanup an in goal fumble by Alan Tongue who makes the first shocker mistake for 2008. Tongue simply having to ground the ball, but chose to roll the dice and try the pickup gifting the Knights a 4 pointer.
With Newcastle out in front, the game looked over until Todd Carney got the Raiders back into the picture with two try assists that looked like action replays of each other. Cutting out two men, Carney found a running Purtell who strode into the Knights left hand corner untouched. Newcastle compressing their defence and paying the price on the edge as the Raiders finally worked out the right play.
With Purtells second touchdown, it was 18-14 with 10 minutes to play – giving the Raiders a chance to steal an unlikely away win.
But it was more of the same for Canberra, silly penalties and lack of patience saw them allow the Knights downfield and pin-point kicking from Newcastle allowed a bullocking Danny Wicks to notch up a match winning try for his new club and the big man picked up the rebounding ball off the sticks and pounce over.
Obviously both teams wanting to get a crucial early season NRL Result, but also grab some confidence that will erase memories of their poor 2007 seasons. The Raiders probably looked too similar to 2007 and continued their one-out tight forward runs for too much of the game, when they expanded late in the piece the spoils were there for them. Withers and Zillman both had high quality games before getting injured and putting aside the handling errors the Raider forwards were tireless for much of the match.
For the Knights, if they can continue to grow in confidence they could leave their mark in the 2008 NRL. They were making all the breaks, but didn’t know how to score at times. Corey Paterson, Kurt Gidley and Danny Buderus all had big showings for the Red and Blues.
There were a few injuries to come out of this one; Raiders full-back William Zillman suffered concussion and Queensland State of Origin forward Neville Costigan re-injured his thigh. Knight Steve Simpson has a likely grade two tear to his knee, forward Cory Paterson suffered a knee knock and Cooper Vuna a dislocated finger.