The Newcastle Knights have compounded the Cronulla Sharks’ woes by completing a thrilling escape at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Josh Hannay was left in charge for his first game as head coach of the Sharks after a tumultuous week off the field with the sacking of John Morris.
Hannay’s task was made all the more difficult with the late omission of Ronaldo Mulitalo, while the Knights welcomed back five-eighth Kurt Mann.
Blake Green got his side into the attacking red zone early in the match through a sweetly-struck 40/20.
A decoy run from Bradman Best in the ensuing set deceived Jesse Ramien and created space for Kalyn Ponga to cross the line.
Three minutes later, Ponga became the creator as he slipped an offload to Mitch Barnett, who beat two defenders to ground the ball.
While he was electric in general play, Ponga’s first two conversion attempts were both waved away.
Just as the Knights appeared as though they would kick clear, the Sharks registered their first points of the evening through a contentious try to former Newcastle centre Jesse Ramien.
Toby Rudolf prevented Kalyn Ponga from contesting a bomb, but was adjudged to be playing at the ball and the try was allowed.
— NRL (@NRL) April 16, 2021
Jacob Saifiti came within centimetres of extending Newcastle’s lead but was denied by Sharks fullback Will Kennedy.
Not to be deterred, the Knights crossed minutes later through Kurt Mann, who scored his first try of the season by latching onto a chip kick from Enari Tuala.
Both sides traded sets in the final ten minutes of the first stanza and entered the sheds at 14-6.
The Sharks wasted no time in kickstarting their second half as Chad Townsend sent Briton Nikora away to score with a short ball at the line.
Cronulla then regained possession from another controversial bunker ruling but were unable to capitalise.
Kalyn Ponga started the second half under the weather with a stomach bug but didn’t let that stop him from impacting the match.
The live-wire fullback moved swiftly down the right edge of the field, feigned to pass to his outside men before offloading back on the inside for Brodie Jones to score the first try of his young career.
The Sharks soon hit back through makeshift winger Connor Tracey, who received a cut-out ball from William Kennedy and evaded the incoming pressure to narrow the margin to just four points.
Four minutes later, Mawene Hiroti stood up Newcastle debutant Brayden Musgrove and crossed in spectacular fashion to tie the game.
Chad Townsend’s kick then faded late to fall between the sticks, giving the Sharks a two-point lead with twelve minutes to play.
Just as the Sharks looked to have the win wrapped up, Newcastle had one final chance at the line with three minutes remaining.
A wayward kick from Blake Green was caught by Brodie Jones, who passed on the inside to Tyson Frizell. Frizell then threw a speculative offload, which was taken by an unmarked Kalyn Ponga with a clear path to the try-line.
— NRL (@NRL) April 16, 2021
Newcastle repelled a gallant Cronulla attack one final time to seal the victory.
With the win, Newcastle overtakes Cronulla and advance to ninth place, equal with Melbourne, Canberra and the Gold Coast for the time being.
The Knights will be glad to escape with little injury concerns compared to previous weeks and will now advance to play the high-flying Panthers next Thursday night.
Meanwhile, the Sharks will have a strong chance of getting their season back on track against the Bulldogs next weekend.
NRL News Player of the Game:
3 Points – Kalyn Ponga – Two tries, two try assists – If we could award all six points to Ponga, we would. Deserved to score the match-winner at the death.
2 Points – Connor Tracey – One try, 179 metres on 20 runs – Forced to play the unnatural position of wing due to the omission of Ronaldo Mulitalo, Tracey demonstrated his versatility and worth to the side through an energetic performance that very nearly inspired his team to victory.
1 Point – Brodie Jones – One try, two try contributions – Jones was forced into the centres early in the match and, like Tracey, thrived in an unnatural position. Quickly becoming a fan favourite in the Hunter.