The Newcastle Knights came out physical in their clash with the Gold Coast Titans at Energy Australia tonight, the tactics from Brian Smith and his team working well – the Knights hanging on for a strong home win and keeping their impressive season rolling along.
From the kick-off, you could see the desperation and line speed from the Knights – they were hitting hard and defending in big numbers. They managed to keep their intencity up for the long haul and eventually got their rewards, winger Cooper Vuna looking particularly good when striding out with the ball.
Halfback Jarrod Mullen also starred for the home side, sending a strong message to New South Wales State of Origin selectors.
The Knights half-back, who played the Origin series opener for NSW last year, scored a superb individual try, set up another and potted the decisive field goal as the home side grimly held off a furious second-half fightback from the Titans.
It finished at two tries apiece, Mullen and Wes Naiqama scoring for Newcastle in the first half and Scott Prince and Mark Minichiello crossing for the visitors in the second. Naiqama had a mixed night, the former Saint looking solid at times with some good strong runs, but occasionally getting caught out in defence and costing his team.
Kurt Gidley booted two goals for the Knights while Prince kicked two for the Titans. The Knights worked hard to shut down Scott Prince, their constant last tackle pressure on the form Titans halfback worked wonders – the playmaker unable to stamp any authority on the game with consistent attention from the home side.
Mullen, who did not play in Friday night’s City-Country match and has only just returned from injury, threw down the gauntlet to Origin No.7 hopefuls Brett Finch, Mitchell Pearce and Todd Carney with a superb first-half performance.
“He looked fantastic on the try that he scored,” coach Brian Smith said.
“When he gets the ball in a broken field situation or with some momentum, he’s dynamite carrying the ball.”
As the Newcastle Knights silently chip away at the NRL Premiership Ladder in 2008, barely a word has been spoken about coach Brian Smith – but certainly at this early stage, his decision to clean out some of the Knights ranks has proved totally correct. While a young side, they are playing with a tonne of commitment and seem to be employing the tactics of Smith well. This time last year, everyone from John Singleton to Jack Newton were calling for the head of Brian Smith and the White Knights were playing KKK games in backrooms of Newcastle – but fast forward to now, and it seems the deep South, I mean the deep North – is all quiet as their Rugby League side continues to be a genuine force.
Mullen’s chip kick in the 20th minute led to a controversial try for Naiqama, who out leapt the Titans defence but appeared to get a touch forward being awarded the four-pointer.
He took the Knights further ahead in the 35th minute when he sliced through from 20m out after second-rower Chris Houston had popped a ball out the back to help the Knights to a 12-0 half-time lead.
The Titans applied the second half pressure – but it still took the visitors until the 61st minute to get over the line.
Video referee Russell Smith had denied them twice, in the 50th and 60th minutes, before sending a decision back to referee Gavin Badger in the 61st.
On that occasion Smith couldn’t decide whether Prince had planted the ball over the line and the “ref’s call” saw Badger award another contentious try.
The Titans had pulled it back to 12-6 but Mullen made the buffer seven in the 69th minute before Gold Coast forward Minichiello crashed over in the 72nd.
It took some heroic bomb defusing from outstanding full-back Gidley and some ball-dislodging defence from winger James McManus for the Knights to hang on as Prince missed his own shot at a one-pointer.
Newcastle went into the game without skipper Danny Buderus, who failed to back up from last night’s City-Country clash, but his replacement Matt Hilder had a blinder against his former club.
“It’s not often you tell a player as good as that that you might be able to do without him,” Smith said of Buderus missing the game.
“And no Simmo (Steve Simpson) and no Adam MacDougall (not used from the bench) … and of course no A. Johns.
“It will be a long time I think since Newcastle have beaten a team at the top of the table without those three or four top line players.
“I don’t think we’re any great team like the Newcastle teams from the past as yet but we’re showing some of those things … they were famous for being tough and hard to beat.”