Led by a double to centre Sione Mata’utia, the Newcastle Knights Under 20s continued their unbeaten start to the season with a hard fought 32-16 victory over the North Queensland Cowboys on Monday.
In an entertaining match at 1300SMILES Stadium, the junior Knights proved too good for the Cowboys on the back of some brilliant attacking football in the first half.
The men in red-and-blue led 22-0 at halftime and held on in the second half despite conceding 16 points to remain on top of the Holden Cup ladder after five rounds.
Mata’utia was outstanding for the Knights with his fleet-footed speed and skill, while forwards Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Joe Tapine came up with the big plays in attack and defence.
Newcastle travel to Canberra on Saturday to take on the Raiders, a side they defeated on the full-time siren back in round two.
The Knights made a number of positional changes prior to kick-off.
Winger Josh Birch travelled with the team to Townsville, but was ruled out due to sickness. Prop Jah Pakau also didn’t travel with the team.
As a result, Bradie Smith, Tama Koopu and Joe Boyce were all elevated from the interchange bench into the starting team.
Former Storm forward Pride Petterson Robati was also named on the bench in his debut match for the Knights.
Both teams were greeted by balmy 29-degree conditions at kick-off. And it didn’t take the Knights long to warm up either, crossing after just three minutes via centre Sione Mata’utia.
Mata’utia leapt high to take an uncontested cross-field kick from halfback Jaelen Feeney to score.
Bryce Donovan missed the kick from the sideline, but it was Newcastle off to a dream start leading 4-0 after just four minutes.
The Knights then gifted the Cowboys a chance to hit back after dropping the ball from the kick-off.
North Queensland looked dangerous with the ball in hand, but couldn’t get through Newcastle’s defence.
In an impressive showcase of tackling, the men in red-and-blue held the Cowboys out for consecutive sets.
This allowed Newcastle to charge up the other end of the field and score following a burrowing run from dummy half Danny Levi.
Donovan added the extras from next to the uprights to give the Knights a handy 10-0 buffer after 10 minutes.
North Queensland came up with another drop ball in the next set and it allowed Newcastle to extend their lead.
Fullback Jake Mamo made it look all too easy, strolling over under the posts from a scrum 15 metres out.
Donovan converted and it was the Knights in complete control leading 16-0 after 15 minutes.
The Cowboys woes then went from bad to worse when their kick-off went out on the full.
Newcastle couldn’t score though due to some resilient North Queensland defence.
The Cowboys had a number of chances to cross for their opening try, but poor ball control proved costly.
Newcastle kept their composure and added to their lead in the 25th minute with Mata’utia bursting onto a short ball from five-eighth Jacob Gagai to score.
Donovan converted the try to give the Knights a comfortable 22-0 lead after 27 minutes.
North Queensland tried hard in the remaining 10 minutes of the first half, but the Knights would maintain their 22-0 lead going into the halftime break.
The Cowboys responded with their opening try in the 48th minute via debutant Coen Hess, who barged over from close range.
Fullback Alex Grant converted to reduce Newcastle’s advantage to 22-6 with 32 minutes remaining.
On the back of strong forward charges, North Queensland was starting to work their way back into the match.
The home side were rewarded for their effort in the following set with forward Bill Cullen barging over.
Grant added the extras to reduce Newcastle’s lead to 22-12 with 27 minutes left on the clock.
The Cowboys dramatically improved their discipline in defence in the second half and it showed on the scoreboard.
North Queensland had a number of opportunities to score, but the Knights remained calm and defended their own line with confidence.
The Cowboys refused to give in though and crossed in the 69th minute following a brilliant try to winger Scott Schulte.
Grant missed the conversion, but it was still a grandstand finish with the Knights holding onto a slender 22-16 lead with nine minutes left.
North Queensland were coming home strongly, but this momentum was halted in the 75th minute when back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon delivered a perfect pass for fellow forward Joe Tapine over to score.
Donovan missed the kick from the sideline, but the Knights were in front 26-16 with just six minutes remaining.
Newcastle sealed the hard fought win in the 77th minute when back-rower Harry Pondekas dived over for a strong try.
Donovan converted to give the Knights a 32-16 victory away from home.
Newcastle Knights 32 (T: Mata’utia 2, Levi, Mamo, Tapine, Pondekas, G: Donovan 4/6)
North Queensland Cowboys 16 (T: Hess, Cullen, G: Grant 2/3)
Mamo, Donovan, Mata'utia, Peni, Smith, Gagai, Feeney, Koopu, Levi (c), Yates, Tapine, Pondekas, Boyce. Bench: De Saxe, Fitzgibbon, Lo Monaco, Petterson Robati.