The Newcastle Knights were all smiles this weekend as they walked off the field at the Sydney Cricket Ground against the Sydney Roosters, not just because they had won, but because all the moves they made during the offseason were coming together and paying off... early.
In one of the surprise upsets of the season's opening round, the Knights toppled the Roosters in a commanding 20-6 victory.
What was most impressive though was how the Knights got it done.
Many would have predicted a star performance from fullback Kalyn Ponga if the Knights wanted to have any chance of winning.
The Queensland State of Origin fullback lead the team in runs and had his fingerprints over the entire game, but it was the composure and leadership shown from halves Jake Clifford and Adam Clune that pushed the Knights over the edge.
“The most pleasing thing for (coach) Adam O’Brien is that we all sat here saying that Newcastle win, Ponga has to be the best player on the field. Well, Ponga was good - he was OK, he was solid. But Clifford, Gagai, (Bradman) Best - there were a lot of other players who contributed,” Cooper Cronk said.
The Knights halves combination was a contentious topic during the off-season, with many questioning its potency without a true star following the departure of Mitchell Pearce.
However, the duo, particularly Clifford, proved all the doubters wrong.
Clifford, who was brought over to the Knights from the North Queensland Cowboys mid last year, was awarded man of the match honours, running for 100 metres on his way to five broken tackles and a try.
Many have pointed to the recent return of immortal and club legend Andrew Johns, in a coaching capacity, as one of the key factors in the Knights' dominance and structure on Saturday afternoon.
“Joey’s been really good this preseason, even (Blake) Green, you know just teaching us our cues, counting numbers and just backing ourselves really," Clifford said.
“When you get approval from people like that it makes you go into a game with a lot of confidence.”
Dane Gagai also put on a show, as he dawned the blue and red for the first time since departing for the Rabbitohs in 2018, running for 200 yards, breaking six tackles, and scoring a try in the season opener.
The Knights seemed to have fixed many of the problems that cursed them last year, showing versatility in their attack and trusting each other on defence.
This was on full display when winger Enari Tuala scored down the left edge at the end of the first half.
— NRL (@NRL) March 12, 2022
The sturdy forward pack of the Knights also seemed to have translated over into 2022, as without Daniel Safiti they still managed to dominate in the middle, causing plenty of mistakes and offering their fair share of yards.
Their opposition, the Roosters, looked completely outmatched at times, with some questioning their preparedness.
“They were hopelessly underdone,” News Corp's Buzz Rothfield told Sky Sports Radio’s Big Sports Breakfast.
“I’m certainly not going to have a crack at Trent Robinson because his coaching achievements over the last 10 years have just been so exceptional.
“But taking eight players — James Tedesco, Luke Keary, Billy Smith, Angus Crichton, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Nat Butcher and Connor Watson — into the game with no trial, no football since September, I think that was a mistake.
“Apart from being underdone I found them to be disjointed.
The Knights will head back home in Round 2 to take on The West Tigers before travelling to Bathurst where they will feature in a thriller against the reigning Premiers, the Penrith Panthers, in Round 3.