The Newcastle Knights beat minor premiers the Mounties 30-26 at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday afternoon to progress to the NSW Cup Grand Final.
In what was a bruising encounter the Knights did themselves proud, hanging on against a fast-finishing Mounties side that almost stole the result in the closing minutes.
The whole team had strong shifts, but halfback Jaelen Feeney put on an absolute master class with three tries in the first half and great link-up play throughout the 80 minutes.
The Knights came into the game without Nathan Ross (ribs) and Carlos Tuimavave (family reasons), but George Ndaira filled in ably at five-eighth while Joe Tapine moved to the centres
The Mounties looked sure to score first points when winger Stewart Mills made a break, but somehow Feeney managed to get across the field in time to hold him up inches short of the line.
With nine minutes played, Feeney was at it again, weaving his way through the Mounties’ defence to score on the right flank. George Ndaira’s conversion was spot on, and two minutes later Honeti Tuha produced a carbon copy of his try from last week when he intercepted a pass to run the length of the field and dive over in the left corner.
Despite the quick-fire onslaught from the Knights, the Mounties were still very much in the game thanks to their strength through the middle.
With 19 minutes on the clock, centre Mitch Cronin took advantage, slipping through a hole in the defensive line to score. Halfback Mitch Cornish was unable to convert though, and it didn’t take long for the Knights to gain momentum again afterwards.
Feeney continued his master class in the halves five minutes later when he finished off a play from a scrum, forcing his way over the line with plenty of attention from several defenders. Ndaira converted to push the score to 16-4, and soon after fullback Jake Mamo came up with a crunching tackle on forward Mitch Barnett when he broke through the line and looked even money to score.
The Mounties weren’t ready to give up yet though, and soon after Mills had another crack at the left corner only to be forced out of play.
With barely two minutes left on the clock before half-time Mills finally got his try for the Mounties, but then with seconds left Ndaira made a break near his own line before laying the ball off to Feeney, who sprinted 60 metres to complete his hat-trick.
The Mounties came out flying in the second half, and with only six minutes gone, centre Jeremy Hawkins chased down a grubber to score. Cornish again missed his conversion, but for multiple sets afterwards the Knights found themselves pinned on their own line.
It took a moment of Mamo brilliance to get the Knights back in the contest, the little fullback managing to rake a potential 40-20 back into play in the 50th minute and then making a swerving 30 metre run.
Five minutes later the Knights scored their next try, Kerrod Holland bouncing his way through multiple defenders to just get the ball over the line.
The Mounties were refusing to give up though, and with fifteen minutes left to play Brenko Lee found a way through the Knights’ defence to score. Cornish finally got a kick on target to push the score to 26-18, and three minutes later the halfback grabbed a four-pointer as well when he chased down a grubber.
He missed his attempted conversion this time though, leaving a four-point barrier between the two sides.
It looked set to be a nervy finish, until Holland came out of nowhere to intercept a pass and run 50 metres to score. It looked as though that would be the last try of the game, until Mills grabbed his second with four minutes left.
The Knights hung on though, the final score 30-26.
The NSW Cup Knights progress to play the Wyong Roos at Pirtek Stadium on Sunday, kick off is scheduled for 4pm.
Knights 30 (T: Feeney 3, Tuha, Holland 2; G: Ndaira 2/5, P: Ndaira 1/1)
Mounties 26 (T: Cronin, Mills 2, Hawkins, Lee, Cornish; G: Cornish 1/5)
1. Jake Mamo, 2. Honeti Tuha, 3. Kerrod Holland, 12. Joseph Tapine, 5. Ken Tofilau, 14. George Ndaira, 7. Jaelen Feeney, 8. Damian Sironen, 9. Danny Levi, 10. Sam Mataora, 11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon, 20. Jacob Saifiti, 13. Clint Newton. Bench: 16. Michael Steele , 17. Josh King, 18. Marvin Filipo, 27. Tama Koopu.