There's no denying Kalyn Ponga had a sensational second half of the NRL season, and there's no way the Knights would have made the finals without him. But some defensive frailties were exposed by the Warriors on Saturday evening, who also did a brilliant job of shutting him down in attack.
Ponga had very little freedom to work his magic as the Knights' season ended in a disappointing 40-10 loss at Mt Smart Stadium. Shaun Johnson orchestrated a lightning fast start that catapulted the Warriors to their most memorable win in quite some time, which has seen them advance to a preliminary final showdown with the Broncos.
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But for Ponga and the Knights it was a bitter pill to swallow considering they came into the match on a 10-game winning streak. The Warriors blitzed Newcastle from the opening minutes, scoring off the back of a Greg Marzhew mistake and racing out to a 16-0 lead in little time.
Ponga conceded the woeful start wasn't good enough from the Knights. “You can’t start games like that, let alone finals," he said in the post-match press conference. "Last week we got away with it (against the Raiders) but this week, off the back of their crowd, they were just too good.
“They won the field position battle and it just felt like that the whole second half... Shaun (Johnson) won the field position with his kicking and we were starting sets inside our 10 and by the time we were able to get our shape on, we didn’t earn the right.”
The Knights managed to claw their way back into the contest and were only down 16-10 early in the second half. But some diabolical defence cost the Knights in the final 30 minutes.
Unfortunately for Ponga he missed three crucial tackles that led to Warriors tries, and dropped a regulation bomb that allowed the New Zealanders to crack the 40 mark. Ponga compounded his error by letting Bailey Sironen stroll straight past him for a try on the ensuing play. Fans were highly critical of Ponga's defensive display on Saturday despite his stellar back half of the season.
A terrible one
— ᗷᗴᑕ (@NewyBeachBum) September 16, 2023
129 metres and 50% tackle efficiency from Ponga. What a captain’s knock.
— 🏴 𝐉𝐀𝐂𝐎𝐁 🇦🇺 (@MrJacobSheppard) September 16, 2023
Ponga didn’t even attempt to get over to defend then and had a piss weak effort the try before but will probably still get praised #NRLWarriorsKnights
— Grace (@whoisgrxce) September 16, 2023
— Satanist69 (@SATANIST69_) September 16, 2023
Nah I was like Ponga in a tackle, couldn’t hold onto anything
— Lachie (@A_Lachie) September 16, 2023
#NRLWarriorsKnights horrible game to finish the season but overall a good season
— ΛNTISOCIΛL (@HawkReport) September 16, 2023
— ❤️Kimberley💙 (@KimmieMaree1994) September 16, 2023
Newcastle got what they deserved after woeful start
Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien said after the game: “It’s funny because we didn’t deserve to end like that, but we deserved to end like that. The way we started the game applied way too much pressure to ourselves.
“It’s hard at the moment because we’ve set such high standards, so for us to just be ok with that performance given what we’ve done for the last 11 weeks, well that wouldn’t mean progress for the club at all. I’m glad it’s hurting all of us.”
Ponga said he and his teammates would take heart at the way they turned their season around when it looked extremely unlikely they would play finals. “In a week or two I think we’ll look back on the season and be pretty proud, a lot of players have developed so much this year and grown into the player they are,” he said.
“I think there’s a core group within the team now, we’re all on the same page, we all want the same thing and we’ll carry that into next year. We’ll be happy with what we did this year but ultimately we wanted three more, I just wanted to keep riding the wave that we were on. But we achieved that through hard work and nothing is going to change. Losing like that will sit bitter for a few people and it should, we should carry that into the pre-season and it should drive us into next year because we fell short of a goal.”
NRL preliminary finals schedule:
Panthers v Storm - Friday 7.50pm, Accor Stadium
Broncos v Warriors - Saturday 7.50pm, Suncorp Stadium
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