Former Cronulla winger Edrick Lee went from villain to hero in the space of three mad minutes to secure a 14-8 victory for Newcastle over his old club in a pulsating game at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.
Lee’s tackle on Sharks winger Sione Katoa in the 72nd minute led to a controversial penalty try, which Shaun Johnson converted to lock up the scores at 8-8.
Three minutes later, Lee snaffled a pass from former team-mate Chad Townsend then sprinted away to score under the posts, bringing a jubilant opening-night home crowd of 21,813 to its feet.
Kalyn Ponga’s conversion restored Newcastle’s six-point lead, which they protected in the frenetic final moments to break an eight-game losing streak against the Sharks.
Katoa’s penalty try was awarded from the bunker by Ashley Klein, who judged the Cronulla winger would have scored if not for Lee’s interference. Before he made that ruling, Klein judged Josh Dugan fumbled the ball trying to ground a Johnson grubber.
Match: Knights v Sharks
Round 1 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Premiership-winning former Melbourne prop Tim Glasby, one of seven Knights debutants, crashed over to score in the 69th minute to break a 2-2 deadlock and give Newcastle their first lead.
Glasby finished off crisp short passes from Kurt Mann and Mitchell Pearce then stepped inside Matt Moylan to score the first try of the game. Ponga converted for an 8-2 advantage.
Glasby and fellow Knights debutant David Klemmer played influential roles up front as the Newcastle forwards refused to yield against the much-vaunted Sharks pack.
Defence dominated a scoreless first half. It was the first time since round 18, 2013 that the opening 40 minutes of a match had failed to produce a point.
Sharks awarded penalty try
Despite running into a strong southerly wind, Newcastle had the better of the first 40 minutes but could not convert that advantage into points.
Cronulla’s goal-line defence kept turning the Knights away, and the Newcastle forwards tackled in gangs when chasing kicks, making it difficult for the Sharks to establish any field position.
Newcastle created the only two genuine try-scoring chances but Lee spilled a speculative pass from Pearce in the ninth minute, then right winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall could not control Pearce’s cross-field bomb in the 17th.
Referee Peter Gough was satisfied Kenny-Dowall planted the ball before it squeezed out of his grasp but, after further scrutiny by Klein in the bunker, it was ruled that the towering winger lost control of the ball before grounding it sufficiently.
Cronulla struggled to find their rhythm in attack, and twice surrendered possession immediately after scrum wins.
Johnson could not reel in an Andrew Fifita pass in the 19th minute, squandering a chance to attack inside Newcastle’s red zone after former Shark Jesse Ramien lost the ball in a tackle.
It was a similar story in the 36th minute when Knights prop Daniel Saifiti dropped the ball when tackled deep in Cronulla territory but the Sharks wasted a chance to counter-attack when right centre Josh Dugan dropped Johnson’s pass after they won the scrum.
Lee terrorised Dugan on several occasions in the first half, moving up quickly in defence on that edge of the field and forcing errors.
Dugan appeared to make amends for his unhappy first half just two minutes into the second half when he created space down the right and grubber-kicked ahead.
The bouncing ball evaded Newcastle fullback Connor Watson and sat up for Katoa, who batted the ball back for Dugan to score.
The bunker ruled Katoa deliberately batted the ball forward and away from Watson to make a play at it.
Newcastle conceded consecutive penalties to gift Johnson the first points of the game from a penalty goal in front of the posts and a 2-0 Sharks lead in the 47th minute.
The Knights levelled at 2-2 when Ponga kicked a penalty goal two minutes later after a bizarre burst of play Sharks fullback Matt Moylan would prefer to forget.
Moylan dropped the ball in his in-goal from the kick-off after Johnson’s penalty goal, then barely made the 10 metres with a miscued line drop-out. From the restart, Knights prop David Klemmer earned a penalty and Ponga converted.
Saifiti was replaced in the 46th minute with a medial problem in his right knee and headed straight up the tunnel into Newcastle’s dressing-room.
Glasby almost scored from a Mann grubber in the 63rd minute but the Sharks regained possession from their short line drop-out, then counter-attacked down the left wing before Josh Morris’s pass for winger Sosaia Feki was called forward.