Canterbury have found themselves back at the bottom of the NRL ladder after another poor attacking performance saw them lose 16-6 to Newcastle in the Magic Round opener and coach Trent Barrett concedes it could be time to make some big changes.
The Knights snapped a seven-game string of defeats, recording their first victory since March. It was as ugly as they come, with both sides low on confidence, but Newcastle executed far more effectively and got their rewards.
They looked very shaky at times, almost unbelieving that they were in the lead, but were good value for the victory. When Adam Clune ran in the try to seal the result with four minutes to play, it was more than deserved.
But for a series of blown tries, it might have been far more comfortable. Mitch Barnett, returning after his suspension following a send off in round 3, was excellent while David Klemmer led strongly from the front.
Canterbury were again beset by a raft of errors and unimaginative attacking play. Their second half completion rate was below 50% and their offloads, usually the strongest part of their attacking game, was curiously limited. They average 10 per game but managed just one.
The Bulldogs also average 11.6 errors per game, the third worst in the NRL behind South Sydney, and were well above that tonight.
The difference, however, is that when the Bunnies drop the ball, they are invariably trying to do something with it. That can’t be said about Canterbury: they go nowhere with the ball, and go there slowly.
“I sound like a broken record,” Barrett said. “It’s the same every week and it’s not good enough.
“I think everyone does (need to step up). We’re just making too many errors and making it too hard for ourselves.”
The key to sparking the Bulldogs’ attack might come by moving Test winger Josh Addo-Carr to fullback. The former Melbourne flyer has played on the wing all season but Matt Dufty’s performances in the No.1 jersey will no doubt give Barrett consideration of a switch.
“Josh is reliant on a lot of things inside him,” he said.
“He’s got a license to get around the field as well but it’s hard to put blame on your winger, but getting him and Burton more ball is (important).
“We need the ball in their hands but you’ve got to hang onto to it do that.”
The Bulldogs used a lot of one-out play, metre-heavy but creativity poor attacking supplemented by huge, spiralling kicks from Matt Burton.
There’s plenty of water in that well: Kalyn Ponga looked a few dollars short of his hefty pay packet, shelling several kicks and gifting field position to the Dogs. Unfortunately, throughout the first half, Canterbury could do very little with it.
Their reward of one try – from a Burton kick, touched down by Josh Addo-Carr in the 20th minute – and one penalty goal, was meagre for a half in which they enjoyed three times the number of play the balls inside 20 as their opponents.
One sequence, in which the Bulldogs had six consecutive sets in the Knights half but rarely threatened to score, was damning.
The sight of a good ball set in which prop forward Luke Thompson found himself passing to lock Josh Jackson on the third tackle told a story all of its own. Eventually, Burton opted to take the two.
Newcastle were hardly fluent either, but they were efficient. They turned their first good ball set into two points off Ponga’s boot, then on their next visit, had Edrick Lee in at the corner for his first try since Origin III, 2020.
There was a strong whiff of a forward pass about it, but not enough for referee Peter Gough or his touch judges to intervene.
This was a game where points were always likely to be at a premium, which made the defending to open the second half from the Bulldogs unforgiveable.
Lee was allowed to run 30 metres across the line before slipping a short ball to Daniel Saifiti, who walked out of a poor attempt from Corey Waddell to waltz beneath the posts. Only an obstruction call kept the score at 6-6.
No matter. Canterbury couldn’t get a hold of the football and after a period of sustained pressure, Bradman Best wandered through tired, scattered defence to put Newcastle in front.
Things got worse for the Bulldogs. Waddell got himself in an awkward position in tackling Mitch Barnett and was out before he hit the ground.
Newcastle should have put it out of sight. Phoenix Crossland darted at the posts from dummy half and got an offload to Leo Thompson, who dropped his first NRL try stone cold.
The luck continued. The Knights bombed another, with Pasami Saulo this time fluffing his lines and missing his first in top grade, bouncing an Adam Clune kick when it would have been easier to score.
Having lost three to the bunker, Newcastle were nearly punished. Addo-Carr, a rare bright light for the Bulldogs, broke along the left but was hauled into touch by a superb Dom Young tackle.
All that was left was for the Knights to seal the result. Adam Clune stepped back through tired defence and went over untouched. Newcastle, undeterred by the bunker’s propensity to rob them of scores, celebrated heartily. This time they would not be denied.
“We needed to win, how it looked in terms of attack didn’t matter to me,” Knights coach Adam O’Brien said.
“I just wanted to see that defensive resolve which we showed. It was an important game for us and that showed in our defensive actions.”