New halves pairing Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson and frontrow recruit Herman Ese’ese led the way as the Newcastle Knights edged out a depleted Melbourne in a trial at AAMI Park on Wednesday.
Debutant winger Thomas Cronan scored a try in the final minute to give the Knights a morale-boosting 26-22 win in the closed trial against the defending premiers.
With no premiership points on the line, the scoreline was of little consequence, particularly as Melbourne rested several of their bigger name stars including Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Will Chambers and Josh Addo-Carr.
But Knights coach Nathan Brown was still happy with the overall outcome and the fact his side got through the 80 minutes injury-free.
“It was a starting point for us – there were some good and not so good patches which you’d expect in a first-up hit-out,” he said.
“You don’t get carried away, particularly as they rested some of their bigger names and the Parramatta trial in a few weeks will give us an even better indication.”
Ese’ese, predominantly a bench forward at the Broncos, started in a new-look front row alongside Slade Griffin and Jacob Lillyman and will be hard to keep out of the starting side for the side’s premiership opener against Manly.
In two 20 minute stints, he was a threat with the football while Griffin was also solid in his first game for his new club against his former team-mates.
Brown said the work of Pearce and Watson when they teamed together in the halves during the opening 40 minutes was also pleasing.
Pearce had a major hand in the Knights’ opening two tries, off-loading a short ball for backrower Lachlan Fitzgibbon to cross in the first guarter before finding his fullback Kalyn Ponga with a perfectly placed grubber into the Storm in-goal.
“They combined well and in that first 40 minutes, we had our moments in attack and certainly looked a lot quicker and more threatening in that area than we did last year,”Brown said.
“That’s a real positive for us and it’s fair to say we looked a lot quicker across the park than we have done previously.
“But it’s fair to say both sides struggled with the play-the-ball rules being enforced.
“It was stop-start with all the penalties and it got frustrating for both sides.”
“It stifled the attack at crucial times but it was fair enough and a good lesson for us in that players have to get into the habit again of touching the ball with their foot when they play it.”
The Knights led 16-10 at halftime and 22-10 early in the third quarter before surviving a Storm rally to clinch the four point victory
The Storm posted first points before Fitzgibbon’s try had the Knights back on level terms with the two side’s going into the quarter time break at 6-all.
Knights fans will be hoping they see plenty of the Pearce-Ponga combination lighting up stadiums this season with the young fullback scoring his first try in Knights colours after collecting the halfback’s grubber to put the visitors in front.
“Kalyn scored one himself and threw the final pass for another and is only going to get better and better the more he plays,”Brown said.
Both sides mixed it up in the second half with Brown handing the playmaking reins to Brock Lamb and Jack Cogger and giving everyone in his 26-man squad a run.
Watson spent the final quarter at fullback.
A Lamb grubber produced a try for backrower Jamie Buhrer early in the third term.
Brown is tipped to trim his squad down to 19 for the Eels trial on February 24..