By Steve Greige
Minor Premiers Newcastle has won their first Harold Matthews competition in fourteen years defeating Penrith in convincing fashion 34-4 at Leichhardt Oval.
The Knights came into this Grand Final on a ten game winning streak which included a 40-0 massacre of the Panthers as recently as round eight and although Canterbury gave them a scare last week the odds were still firmly stacked against Penrith producing an upset.
Both sides got off to a nervous start in front of the healthy crowd but it was the Novocastrians that were first to settle in the 7th minute when hooker Tom Starling threw a flat ball to backrower Joel Taylor who wrestled his way over from close range to give them an early 4-0 lead.
An exciting passage of play in the 11th minute proved to be a huge turning point in the lopsided decider. The Panthers exploited an overlap down their left edge in their own half with five-eighth Kieran Hayman and centre Joseph Pupu combining to put winger Berkut Tastan into open space down the grandstand touchline before he grubbered infield off his left boot to Hayman but unfortunately for Penrith he dropped the ball trying to scoop it up just short of the tryline.
In the next set of six crafty Starling cut the Panthers defence to shreds sidestepping his way over the halfway before finding his right centre Heath Gibbs who then chipped the ball back infield and five-eighth Hudson Young got a fortuitous bounce to regather and score his first of the day. Halfback Brendan O’Hagan, the competition’s top pointscorer, added the extras to make it 10-0.
Five minutes later the Knights were in again when Newcastle’s classy spine combined down the right edge before powerful centre Gibbs bumped off three defenders to slam dunk the ball over the tryline in emphatic fashion to extend the margin to 14-0.
Things went from bad to worse for the under siege Panthers in the final eight minutes of their nightmare first half when they gifted the Novocastrians two long range intercept tries to make it 24-0 at the break.
In another possible twelve point turnaround, the Panthers were deep on the attack but Young pounced onto a Penrith pass close to his own tryline and had just enough pace to fend off a great chase from Tastan to race away 90 metres to score his second in front of the Keith Barnes Stand.
But the real ‘Coach Killer’ came in the final minute of the half when ginger-haired playmaker O’Hagan latched onto a Meni Luke ball 40 metres out and streaked away to score his eighth try of the season untouched under the posts. He then slotted the simple conversion to give them a commanding 24-0 lead and they were given a standing ovation from their fans as they left the field.
Any hopes of a miraculous Panthers comeback were history midway through the second stanza when the minor premiers flexed their muscles with two tries in three minutes to blow the lead out to 34-0.
Man of the match Kurtis Dark, the ball-playing lock who was instrumental in most of Newcastle’s attacking raids, threw a lovely cut-out pass for left winger Brayden Musgrove to stroll over in the grandstand corner in the 42nd minute and not long after captain Brodie Jones looked more like a fleet-footed back than a frontrower when he stepped his way past several Penrith defenders to cross for his 11th try of the season next to the sticks and O’Hagan converted.
A passage of play in the 50th minute seemed to sum up the Panthers inept performance today.
Despite getting back to back penalties, Penrith prop Navaetangi Soni spun out of a tackle and looked certain to score but tragically dropped the ball over the tryline.
However the Rugby League gods did finally smile on the hapless Panthers in the 56th minute when Pupu scored a late consolation try in the far corner to reduce the final margin to 34-4.
After the presentation Newcastle centre Gibbs dunked his coach Anthony Gleeson in Gatorade and the Novocastrians celebrated winning their first title since 2000, which ironically was also against Penrith.
But the young Knights won’t get too much time to party as they have to head north of the border next weekend to take on the Northern Pride in the National Championship Grand Final in Townsville.
Newcastle Knights 34 (H Young 2, J Taylor, H Gibbs, B Musgrove, B O’Hagan, B Jones tries; B O’Hagan 3 goals) def. Penrith Panthers 4 (J Pupu try) at Leichhardt Oval.