There was something a little different about the pounding the Newcastle Knights dished out to Canterbury-Bankstown on Friday night.
It was an excellent performance in many ways and similar to others we saw in 2020. Yet whilst being a defensively strong, attackingly dangerous and well organised effort, there was also something emphatic and foreboding about the 32-16 win.
Considering the blue and whites managed to score the opening four-pointer and that Dallin Watene-Zelezniak crossed for his double late in the game in what was nothing more than a consolation try, the score line potentially flattered the Bulldogs.
Frankly, they stank. As defensively eager and committed as always, Canterbury showed all the signs that the impotent attack with which they have struggled over the last few seasons has far from been resolved.
Kyle Flanagan tried hard to spark things yet appears too raw and inexperienced to be taking the organisational reins of an NRL team. Nick Meaney and Watene-Zelezniak offer little or no power and punch on the wings and Jake Averillo ran about like a headless chook trying everything and achieving little.
Trent Barrett has his hands full with that lot and admittedly, has some top quality talent to return to his squad. However, it was the manner in which the Knights appeared to care little about the bodies in front of them and their ability to dismiss the Dogs with a waft of their hand that was most impressive.
That dismissal began in the forwards, with Daniel Saifiti, David Klemmer and Tyson Frizell running for a combined total of 571 metres. For other NRL hopefuls it was ominous to see the always strong Saifiti accept the captaincy with glee, raise his level accordingly and Frizell compliment the two big men so perfectly.
Super Daniel Saifiti at the double in game 100!
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— Fox League (@FOXNRL) March 12, 2021
The New South Wales backrower may be precisely the piece for which Adam O’Brien has been searching to complete his NRL puzzle.
With Mitchell Barnett also causing his own fair share of trouble on the fringes of the ruck, kicking goals and producing yet another stellar performance, it is unlikely any NRL forward group would comfortably get on top of the Knights big men on a regular basis. Off the back of that type of forward dominance, the Newcastle Knights could well become serious premiership contenders.
What they have in power they also appear to have in finesse. Mitchell Pearce presents consisted competence at NRL level and Jayden Brailey shapes as one of the most influential young hookers in the game. However, it is the X-factor presence of Connor Watson and Bradman Best that places the cherry on top of what looks like becoming a tasty 2021 NRL cake.
Whether it be magnificent defensive efforts such as the one he produced to deny Canterbury a second half try or popping up in support of one of his big men storming through the centre of the park, Watson has been steadily improving since arriving in the Hunter in 2018. He now appears ready to explode into the forefront of every NRL fans’ mind, especially when supporters see him up close and personal against their own team.
Out wide, Best looks likely to be capable of doing something similar. The ease with which he penetrated the Bulldogs’ defensive line direct from a scrum to score his 54th minute try was more than impressive.
Whilst other members of the Knights’ backline may be young and lacking experience, they too showed much in attack, with Starford To’a and Tex Hoy impressing despite having just 19 matches of experience between them.
The key question that emerges is whether O’Brien now has the full kit of tools he needs to take the Knights into the top four this season. Last year’s seventh place was creditable, yet the squad never really looked likely to topple the competition heavyweights on the big occasion.
With the arrival of Frizell, an intimidating forward pack, the continued development of Brailey and the required X-factor potency in Best, Watson and Pearce, the coach will be resting his head comfortably on the pillow at night; believing that injury and/or suspension could be the only threats to his side’s confident march to the finals.
On Friday night, the opposition was questionable, no doubt. However, Knights teams of the past may well have struggled to put away the always plucky Dogs. Not on this occasion though, the new Newcastle pounded them into submission and disposed of the carcass once the assault had been completed.
They will not be the only team to travel to Newcastle and suffer that fate in 2021.