Jack Wighton’s debut for South Sydney next year could be delayed after he was accused of biting in Sunday’s dramatic extra-time elimination final at Newcastle which was not decided until the 89th minute when the Raiders were pinged for being offside while trying to deny a field goal.
Newcastle five-eighth Tyson Gamble was fuming after an incident in the 46th minute when he reeled away after tackling Wighton, protesting to referee Ashley Klein that the Canberra veteran had bitten his forearm.
Klein ultimately could not say that Wighton deliberately bit Gamble despite a noticeable mark on his arm after the bunker reviewed the available footage of the incident.
It fired up the Knights, who had been lacklustre up until that point, charging back from a 16-6 deficit with captain Kalyn Ponga the catalyst for four unanswered tries in the next 15 minutes before the Raiders rallied late to level the scores at 28-28 to force extra time.
Newcastle will live to fight another day next weekend on the back of the 30-28 triumph, their 10th in a row, to take on the Warriors in a semi-final showdown in Auckland.
Unless there is video proof, biting allegations are always hard to prove and referee Ashley Klein erred on the side of caution after Gamble claimed Wighton bit him by only placing him on report.
The Knights five-eighth jammed his forearm towards the face of Wighton after he had tackled him to the ground and the Raider did not have much room to move.
However, Gamble’s arm had a clear mark on it from where Wighton’s mouth had left a mark.
“That’s slobber – that is not sweat. There’s a bite there, he bit me,” Gamble said to Klein.
Wighton countered with: “He lays on the back of my head, pushing down. What am I meant to do? I can’t move my mouth, he’s got to move his arm,” as the sell-out crowd chanted for the Raiders star to be sent off.
After allowing the bunker an extended chance to view the vision, Klein said they were not able to prove it was a bite and “couldn’t go on the word of Tyson”.
“They’ve reviewed it and can’t definitely say,” he told Ponga after the skipper asked for an explanation.
On Fox League, former premiership-winning five-eighth Braith Anasta was bemused Wighton was not dispatched by the ref.
“There seemed to be bite marks on the arm. Gamble straight away reports it to the referee. Jack Wighton has his mouth open and his arm in it. I don’t know how he didn’t get sent off the field,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Ponga, in the post-match media conference, said Klein conveyed that he couldn’t be certain about the incident.
“He just said he couldn’t see anything, play on,” he said. “The crowd got behind us after that, the crowd got us home, not that incident.”
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said they were just allegations against Wighton, who he thought was “brilliant” during the game.
“I just hope that great game of football is not overshadowed in the media by that (incident). It was a quality game of football that only us in our camp knew we were going to play.”
Hohepa Puru’s second game at NRL level only lasted a couple of minutes when the rookie Raiders forward was subbed off after a head knock and the match went to script early when Ponga made his first incision.
He attracted two defenders, which left room for Bradman Best to put Greg Marzhew over in the corner.
Canberra went close to equalising when Ata Mariota was held up over the line by a matter of millimetres before they registered their first points out of nothing in the 19th minute when Newcastle veteran Dane Gagai knocked on and and James Schiller scooted over in the corner from close range.
It looked like Gagai had put Newcastle back in front in the 30th minute on the back of a Marzhew intercept but his hands let him down again as he bounced the putdown in the corner as Hudson Young launched a last-gasp tackle.
The Green Machine made them pay in the next minute when Trey Mooney barged over from a short drop-out and then Wighton got on the outside of Gagai to put Schiller over for his second to make it 16-6 right on half-time.
Canberra again looked the stronger side in the early exchanges after the restart before the biting flashpoint fired up the home side.
Jackson Hastings was replaced at the break after aggravating his ankle injury in his comeback game and makeshift playmaker Kurt Mann backed up a Lachlan Fitzgibbon offload to send Ponga streaking away.
Newcastle hit the front when Ponga broke free down the right edge to put Dominic Young over and then booted the sideline conversion.
Another right-side raid on the Raiders had Ponga releasing Young with Gagai backing up to touch down.
Young’s second try in the 62nd minute, a runaway effort after Gamble collected the crumbs from a Canberra bomb, made it 28-16 but Raiders five-eighth Matt Frawley kept the underdogs in the contest when he scored a short time later to cut the deficit to six heading into the closing stages.
And with less than three minutes on the clock, Canberra captain Elliott Whitehead produced a superb offload for bench hooker Tom Starling to level the scores.
Adam Elliott hit Raiders prop Joseph Tapine high in the final minute of regulation time to piggyback the Raiders into field goal range but Jamal Fogarty was charged down by Tyson Frizell and Fogarty sprayed his attempt to send the match into extra time.
Fogarty had another chance at the end of the first five-minute extra time period from a scrum win but Gamble got his forearm back in the spotlight by denying the one-pointer.
And he botched a kick out on the full late in the second period of extra time which ultimately gave Newcastle the field position for the match-winner.
Knights coach Adam O’Brien said they had done “a helluva job to turn that scoreline around” and while he wasn’t happy with his team’s execution, he wasn’t going to lambast them.
“There was a couple of moments that we’d like to have back, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” he said. “There was a lot of character in that win. I don’t want to get bogged down, there’s no point me standing in there roasting people about completions – that ain’t gonna help us next week.
“We will dump parts of it but we will hang onto the effort and the character that we showed.”
He said it was too early to say whether Hastings would be able to suit up against the Warriors but the early signs are that he will need more time out after aggravating his ankle injury in his comeback match with Adam Clune likely to come back in as starting halfback.
Stuart said the tight result wasn’t what anyone expected after adoping a siege mentality as underdogs in the lead-up to the game.
“That’s the Raiders DNA, what you’ve seen tonight,” he said. “That just showed so many people that’s why we were in the top eight. I can’t be any prouder. I thought we were very, very brave.”