Brisbane have continued their month-long winning streak, defeating Newcastle 36-12 at McDonald Jones Stadium in a game marred by officiating controversy.
The Broncos pulled away in the second half after two key bunker decisions went against Newcastle, one in attack against Dane Gagai and crucial second half call that saw Selwyn Cobbo awarded a try after what appeared to be a clear obstruction in the build-up with the scores tightly balanced.
Knights coach Adam O’Brien was seen in the coaching box gesticulating wildly at the corner, later clarifying that he thought that, had it occurred closer to the tryline, it would have been called.
“What do you think?” said O’Brien when asked in the post-match presser if he thought it was a try.
“If that happens on the 10m line or on the tryline…the rules should be the same all down the field. At 14-12 I thought that we were coming back. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.
“In saying that, if it had happened down there (closer to the tryline) it would have been pulled up, in my opinion.”
He was not the only one: on Channel 9, Phil Gould said that it ‘flew in the face of everything they have done in the last ten years” while even Broncos coach Kevin Walter admitted that his team “got a lucky one”.
O’Brien said that he did not think that it was an excuse for his side’s loss of momentum in the second half.
“Because that happened is not the reason for that scoreline at the end there,” he said. “It’s inexcusable for us to turn up there. I get that it took a bit of wind out of the sails.
“But, again, there was some on kick chase and defence that we need to be better at.
“The three line breaks off kick chases hurt. That stuff we can control. None of the officials are involved so that’s on us.
“In the first half, when you come off seven weeks of losing, you think ‘we’re on here tonight’. We had so many chances to get across the line and when it didn’t happen, we got a bit of performance anxiety.”
Beyond the controversy lay a superb performance from Brisbane’s outside backs.
Selwyn Cobbo scored twice and ran for 200m with ten tackle breaks, with Kotoni Staggs and Corey Oates not far behind. Staggs also kicked six goals while on the other side, Herbie Farnworth scored late and was excellent throughout.
“Cobbo was always going to be that player,” said Walters. “He’s only in his tenth game of first grade.
“I love the way Selwyn goes about his work, he’s always got a smile on his face and we love having him at the Broncos.
“I feel that the bigger occasion, the more involved he gets and the better he goes. We saw that in the Queensland Cup Grand Final and his first grade debut.
“He’s getting better all the time. I guess normally when you play that well, bigger things happen.
“We haven’t spoken (about Origin) at all. We just want him to keep doing what he’s doing for the Broncos and everything else normally looks after itself if you do that consistently each week.”
Ezra Mam, called up for an unlikely debut after an injury to Adam Reynolds, overshadowed his opposing 6, the returning Anthony Milford, to record two try assists and over 100m with ball in hand.
Despite an undeniably impressive performance, the Knights will rage at two key bunker decisions that went against them at crucial points in the game.
Though the scoreline blew out in the end, the game was poised when the calls were made and could have been very different.
Dane Gagai was denied a try that could have seen the Knights go to half time in the lead, while with just two points in between the sides and twenty to play, the Broncos received the Cobbo non-obstruction call.
Newcastle had dominated the first half and should have been ahead regardless given the weight of territory and possession in their favour.
Kalyn Ponga was influential, but Anthony Milford, clearly carrying a few kilos from his long stint on the sidelines, was far from his best and capped a poor evening by throwing an interception to Farnworth after the siren.
“It looked like his first game in a long time,” admitted O’Brien. “I thought he had some really good touches early and I thought it would be a fun night.
“It’s a reflection of our night. I think he’s like some stuff back again in the second half, and as a team, we’d like some stuff back again.”
Ezra Mam’s night couldn’t have started much worse with the rookie inadvertently gifting the first try to the Knights.
He stuck a hand in the direction of a kick, sending it away from Te Maire Martin and directly in front of Tyson Frizell.
It might have got worse for the Broncos. Newcastle were dominating the ball and created chances for Fitzgibbon, who was denied by a Kotoni Staggs trysaver and then Frizell again, who couldn’t gather an Anthony Milford kick.
Mam then squared his own personal ledger to create Brisbane’s response. The five eighth broke the line and produced an offload within inches of the floor which Billy Walters, after a juggle, was able to ground.
There was still time in the half for Newcastle to score again – only for one of the worst Bunker decisions of the year to intervene. Again it was a Milford kick that caused the damage, bamboozling Corey Oates and popping up for Dane Gagai.
Gagai seemed to have grounded easily, but the video found a gap between his hand and the ball on the way to the floor. There had been separation, but it was never out of the centre’s control.
Brisbane, perhaps inspired by the late reprieve in the first half, started the second with gusto. Oates made a strong line break to begin the half and on 50 minutes, Jordan Riki was able to stroll over after a smart Corey Paix pass.
Riki would have to be the hero again soon after. Keenan Palasia made an error on the first set after points and gifted possession right back to the Knights in good ball, with Bradman Best going very close.
The second row who had just scored up the other end was on hand to deny the Knights centre.
It would be his last involvement, landing awkwardly on an arm and departing straight up the tunnel. It was later revealed to be a dislocated elbow.
Kotoni Staggs then added a penalty goal to further extended the lead, but were immediately pegged back by the play of the game.
Kalyn Ponga will take the plaudits for his winding run to evade Broncos fullback Martin, but it was the inside pass to put him into place from Matt Croker that was the real piece of magic. Ponga goaled and suddenly the deficit was just two points again.
The momentum swung straight back. Selwyn Cobbo, so strong in returning the ball, took it 60m on his own and returned Brisbane back to good ball.
Dom Young was forced into an error and from the resulting set, the Broncos should have scored as Kobe Hetherington broke though, but then passed the ball off the deck and was called back for a penalty.
It didn’t matter. Staggs sent Adam Clune flying and released Selwyn Cobbo, who raced away – via a valiant effort from Dom Young – to score.
The bunker, again, had a big say: it looked for all the world like Te Maire Martin had obstructed Clune en route to make a tackle, but the try was allowed to stand.
If there was controversy about the Cobbo try, there was magic about the next.
A last tackle play went through at least ten pairs of hands, two kicks and several passes to the ground before Oates was able to touch down, with Phoenix Crossland watching on stunned.
There was time for Cobbo to grab another – courtesy of an exceptional Martin pass – and for Farnworth to get a deserved try from an intercept.