KNIGHTS coach Wayne Bennett said his new team were a work in progress after his old team spoiled his first game in charge.
Even without their premiership-winning coach, St George Illawarra continued their Hunter Stadium hoodoo over the Knights with a 15-14 extra-time victory in front of almost 30,000 screaming fans in the NRL season-opener last night.
Jamie Soward’s 25-metre field goal, with 25 seconds left in the first period of extra time, was the golden point the Dragons needed to register their eighth straight victory over the Knights at what is usually an impregnable fortress for visiting teams.
That has not been the case for the Dragons, who have now won 12 of their 14 games against the Knights in Newcastle stretching back to 1999.
An almost capacity crowd packed in to watch the Knights launch the NRL season and the Bennett era against the team he coached to the 2010 premiership during his tenure at St George Illawarra for the past three years.
The turnout of 29,189 broke a 24-year-old club record for the biggest attendance for the first home game of any Newcastle season. The previous mark of 26,340 was set when the Knights played their first premiership game, against Parramatta on March 5, 1988.
Bennett said he did not ‘‘buy into’’ the pre-game hype leading up to his first game coaching his third club, but he saw enough to feel confident the Knights would improve.
‘‘We know what’s in front of us,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘We’re not a one-game team, and it wasn’t about blasting off out here tonight. It was about playing against a really good team and staying with them and competing with them, and starting to get our game right that we need to get to where we want to go.
‘‘We’ve got a lot out of tonight. I’m sure the players will realise what they can do better, should do better, want to do better, so that’s where we’re at tonight. It wasn’t any more than that for me personally.’’
Bennett said the Dragons suffered a similar loss in extra time, 17-16 to Melbourne, in his first game in charge in 2009.
‘‘It was a great occasion ... it was a great way to kick the season off ... but I don’t think we came here with an expectation that we had to show that we could be a team other than a work in progress right now, and that’s what I felt we were tonight, a work in progress,’’ he said.
‘‘I went to the Dragons, and we got beaten by Melbourne in the first game as well, exactly the same, 17-16, and it was 16-all at full-time.
‘‘That was three years ago now, and it had all the similarities out here tonight, and I still remember the way we played that night.
‘‘We played like these blokes played tonight – lots of courage, having a real dig – but not the class Melbourne had. But by the end of the year we had it, so it’s a work in progress here.’’
Bennett believed a 55th-minute penalty against centre Timana Tahu was sufficient punishment for Tahu lashing out with his knee at Matt Prior after Prior tackled him.
Tahu, who finished the game on the sidelines with a suspected hamstring strain, was reported by referees Matt Cecchin and Ashley Klein. The incident, which provoked a flurry of retaliatory punches from Dragons winger Jason Nightingale, will be assessed on Monday by the NRL match review committee.
‘‘There wasn’t much in it. It was just stupid stuff,’’ Bennett said. ‘‘It was a bit of frustration by the look of it, more than anything else, but there was nothing major there ... Sometimes you see a guy getting up and they’ll do that in a tackle and they’ll just penalise them there and then.’’
The teams were locked at 14-all after an exhilarating second half, in which the Knights fought back from a 14-6 deficit in the 47th minute.
A front-on tackle by Richie Fa’aoso on Matt Prior forced the turnover the Knights needed to mount an attack from midfield in the second minute of extra time.
But Dean Young returned serve with a tackle on former teammate Adam Cuthbertson, when the Knights were in position to kick a field goal from in front of the posts.
The Knights had another possession with about 90 seconds left but Zeb Taia lost the ball in a tackle, giving the Dragons the upper hand, and Soward made no mistake after two earlier misses.
The Dragons dominated the first half but had to settle for a slender 8-6 half-time lead after Knights halfback Jarrod Mullen scooted 30 metres from dummy-half to score a smart solo try in the 33rd minute.
Tahu was in the thick of the action five minutes after lashing out at Prior, throwing the final pass for McManus to score in the corner after a Newcastle scrum win.
Captain Kurt Gidley converted from the sideline, then was on target with a penalty goal in the 72nd minute to level the scores at 14-14.
The penalty was the result of Knights bench forward Alex McKinnon having the ball stripped by Prior in a tackle. McKinnon had regained possession for the Knights one minute earlier with a rib-rattling tackle on Prior, his former teammate.
Soward was off target with a long-range field-goal attempt in the 75th minute but the Dragons earned another set when Knights prop Adam Cuthbertson lost the ball in a tackle.
Ben Creagh's grubber kick earned the Dragons another set from a Newcastle line drop-out but Dean Young lost the ball running fron dummy-half two plays later and the chance was lost.
Dragons post-match elebration
* The Knights opened their account in the National Youth Cup with a comprehensive 44-12 victory over the Dragons.
Newcastle’s NSW Cup side take on 2011 runners-up Auckland Vulcans at Mt Smart Stadium tomorrow.