Two high-pressure goals from Jai Field have sealed a victory for Illawarra in the Hunter, as the defending premiers defeated the Newcastle Knights 34-32 in one of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW games of the season.
After an early try, the Knights failed to capitalise on significant ball in the opening quarter and would be punished by their opposition in the second - a period of the game which looked likely to determine the result. Three tries in the space of eight minutes late in the game, however, completed an impressive comeback for Newcastle, who came within inches of a memorable victory. An offside charge down on a field goal attempt would be the game's deciding moment, however, with Field slotting a difficult penalty goal to keep his side in the top eight.
While Mickey Paea was a welcome addition to the Knights' starting side, Illawarra brought in a host of changes, with Field, Jordan Pereira and Taane Milne added to a new-look back line. Field and halfback Jack Payne were strong for the Illawarra and the Knights enjoyed some fine work from Jack Cogger, Jaelen Feeney and Nick Meaney. The sides were relatively even in a high-quality, high-scoring and entertaining match at McDonald Jones stadium.
The home side was quick to get scoring underway, with livewire fullback Nick Meaney crossing the stripe in the first minute of play. The try came off the back of a 50-metre run in which Meaney sliced through the Illawarra defence and beat Field, converting his own try to lead 6-0 early.
Newcastle enjoyed a long period of possession, denying the chance to add a certain two points when a penalty was awarded in prime position. When Illawarra got the ball, they made the Knights pay, with some class from halfback Jack Payne finding Luciano Leilua, who in turn offloaded to a flying Patrick Herbert to score. Field converted from out wide to level up scores.
Payne then went back to back with some fine work to score Illawarra's second; chasing through Field's kick from close range, he scored under the posts for Field to easily convert. After an opening quarter which was all in Newcastle's favour, the visitors led 12-6.
The resurgence of Illawarra continued and their third try came off the back of a fantastic offload from Will Matthews; the second-rower found five-eighth Adam Clune, who got it to brother Sam, with Field then finishing the movement. The tryscorer then converted and Illawarra led 18 points to six.
As the Knights enjoyed more time on Illawarra's line, they looked likely to add to their tally late in the half, but it was once again Mat Head's men who would score. The side's three playmakers - Adam Clune, Payne and Field - combined as Matheson Johns eventually took the ball into the south-east corner, with Field maintaining his perfect record with the boot to ensure a 24-6 half-time lead.
The Knights looked a rejuvenated side in the second period and as with the first half, crossed for a try early. It came via a barnstorming run from Pasami Saulo, who ran through four defenders under the posts. The conversion brought scores back to 24-12.
Despite repeat sets on Illawarra's line, Newcastle were unable to score yet again before a penalty denied the visitors a possible try soon after. It gifted Field an easy penalty goal in front as he extended his side's lead beyond two converted tries.
With two competition points on the line, the Knights refused to die wondering and Jaelen Feeney would then score the try of the afternoon. The five-eighth couldn't be put down and got the ball away, with Brendan Elliot then finding Feeney back on the inside to break through and score.
Sheer brilliance from Knights winger Thomas Cronan continued the comeback, chasing down a Cogger grubber and despite the attempts of Field to see him off, Cronan managed to plant the ball down. While the conversion attempt sailed wide, the Newcastle men trailed 26-22 with 15 minutes remaining.
In the ensuing passage of play, the Knights had the chance to level scores and made no mistake, with Cogger once again kicking into the south-western corner and a fortunate bounce finding Jacob Gagan in the in-goal. After another missed conversion, the Knights scored a third try in quick succession, once again through Feeney in the middle. Meaney easily added the extras and for the first time, Newcastle enjoyed a six-point lead.
In a frantic finish, however, momentum was swinging wildly and Illawarra managed to score again through Pereira; Adam Clune chipped it to the man named at fullback who did well to take the ball and score. With a fantastic, high-pressure conversion from Field, scores were once again level at 32 points apiece.
The game could have gone either way in the dying stages and as Herbert lined up for an unlikely field goal from 40 metres out, he was charged down by an offside Newcastle defence. That set up another pressure attempt at goal from Field, who calmly slotted it between the uprights to secure an important two competition points.
Illawarra 34 (P Herbert, J Payne, J Field, M Johns, J Pereira tries; J Field 7 goals) def Newcastle Knights 32 (J Feeney 2, N Meaney, P Saulo, T Cronan, J Gagan tries; N Meaney 4 goals)