It was supposed to be one of the most emotional and joyous days for the Newcastle Knights when a community far greater and wider than the league-mad Novocastrians united for the Rise for Alex campaign.
iSelect Titans skipper Nate Myles admitted he was choked up moments before kick off when Alex McKinnon was wheeled onto Hunter Stadium and both sides stood either side of him as the teary former forward listened to crowd roar “Alex, Alex, Alex.”
But what the under-pressure Titans did was rise for the occasion in what should be recognised as one of the club’s great victories considering the circumstance of more significant than just walking into an emotional ambush against a Knights side that had won three straight.
The Titans were missing no less than 12 players from the season’s starting squad who have played first grade this season: Ash Harrison, Will Zillman, Greg Bird, Ryan James, David Mead, Cody Nelson, Beau Henry, Caleb Binge, Albert Kelly, Matt Srama, Aidan Sezer and Ben Ridge.
Yet the defensive attitude that repelled several repeat sets on their line in the first half as they ran into a howling southerly wind but led 12-0 showed that the character of the 17 who took the field, and not the circumstances or media hype around them, was what mattered.
It was almost like they were raiders in the night who snuck into the stadium only an hour before kick-off after being strapped at the team hotel. They warmed up in the anti-room off the dressing room so that they did not expose themselves to the possible hostile fans and intimidating atmosphere. They only entered the lion’s den of emotion as they walked out for kick-off before more than 26,000 in red and blue.
From then, they met repelled everything the Knights players and boisterous crowd threw at them for 60 minutes before letting Newcastle into the game at 16-8 and the potential of the crowd influence threatened to derail a tremendous effort.
But a try to right centre James Roberts in the final minute off a grubber in-goal to Daniel Mortimer sealed a game that, when all the hype of the occasion wears off, was valuable in the context of the competition ladder alone.
“I thought we were pretty good until I Alex was with the Knights boys out at the start, it took me back a bit, and when he was on the field it hit me again to be honest,” said captain Nate Myles of the occasion.
“We spoke about the occasion during the week but for us it was about playing in front of a big house, something that a few of the boys hadn’t experienced before, and enjoying that.”
Coach John Cartwright, who found himself in the media firing line in the lead-up to the match, could not have been prouder of the performance and put it in perspective when he regarded it as one of the club’s very best – and he has been there since its first days in 2007.
There hasn’t been enough consistency, at home particularly, this season but today’s effort showed what the side is capable of that the spirit as a group, players, coaches and support staff, was first class under pressure.
“That was a really, really tough win … I hope you write about how tough it was here to come and win, considering what was around it and the week we had,” Cartwright said to the assembled media. “That was as good a win as we’ve had.”
The Titans were terrific in the first half, battling into the big southerly. The defence off their try line was determined and they completed well to lead 12-0 at the break despite the Knights having dominance in possession and territory for much of that period.
Anthony Don opened the scoring after 19 minutes after Roberts split the defence down the left side after a shift early in the tackle count from 20m out. Kevin Gordon converted.
Then, after a triple change of possession after Knights winger Akuila Uate twice lost possession and the Titans handed it back straight after a scrum win, big Dave Taylor – playing at left centre – took out four defenders, including State of Origin opponent Beau Scott who he terrorised on the left edge, over the line for a wonderful determined try. Gordon’s goal made it 12-0 and a stunned crowd was suddenly silent.
Taylor was a massive handful, especially in the first session. He made a monstrous 190m from 25 possessions. He had good company when it came to inspirational efforts. Myles played 70 minutes and topped the tackle count with 33; hooker Beau Falloon went off concussed after eight minutes only to return and when he was back for his second stint he lifted the side’s defence with his enthusiasm. Paul Carter was aggressive and relentless as usual. The experiment of Brad Takairangi at five-eighth worked well and Don took some tough high balls in the blustery conditions and came up with the crucial try.
It was 12-0 at the break and when the Knights gained possession from a kick-off into the wind, it looked like momentum might change despite having lost skipper Kurt Gidley. But another great performer Titans performer, Mark Minichiello, scored a tremendous try after Myles threw a good long ball to the left and Taylor just kept control and offloaded one-handed to Minichiello when pressed by Uate 20 metres out and ‘Mini’ stepped Dane Gagai to make it 16-0.
Newcastle put on two tries in eight minutes, to centre Joey Leilua and halfback Tyrone Roberts (and had another to Darius Boyd disallowed after it was ruled he lost control of the ball as he reached for the line) to bring it back to 16-8 as the crowd that came determined to make it a special day willed their team on.
The Titans were not stopping the offloads and were falling off tackles, but they regained composure and Mark Ioane looked like he would seal victory three minutes from the end when he scrambled his arms free in a tackle on the line placed the ball down. Ref Matt Cecchin ruled try but the video replay showed Ioane slightly lost touch with the ball in a 50-50 decision.
It was Roberts’ try off Mortimer’s grubber than confirmed the Titans, now with six wins from eight games away – the best record in the NRL – would get the points on a day that will never be forgotten.
Wins by Melbourne and Wests Tigers leave the Titans still two points behind eighth place which emphasises how important the victory was. The challenge is now to repeat such an effort at home against Parramatta this Saturday and restore the faith of their home crowd.
iSelect Titans 22 (Don, Taylor, Minichiello, Roberts tries; Gordon 3 goals) beat Newcastle Knights 8 (Leilua, Roberts tries). Crowd: 26,401.