Newcastle have gone back to back. Tamika Upton has gone back to back.
The Knights fullback, fresh from picking up the Dally M Medal on Wednesday night, retained her Karyn Murphy Medal for player of the match after a dominant performance to lead to the Knights to a 24-18 comeback victory over the Gold Coast Titans.
Even the Titans – and their coach, the medal’s namesake – would struggle to begrudge the victory.
After being dominated for the first 25 minutes of both halves, Upton sparked to life with a virtuoso display of attacking footy, scoring two and laying on the other two for Newcastle.
Prior to the two late tries that stole the game, Jaime Chapman, the Titans centre, had her name etched onto the medal. She scored a hat-trick and pulled off a stunning try-saving tackle that looked like it was set to break the Gold Coast’s long trophy drought and finally bury the city’s reputation for coming up short in professional sports.
The game, however, turned on an innocuous moment. With the Knights trailing by six and going nowhere, winger Sheridan Gallagher pulled off a one-on-one steal to get her side into field position. From there, Upton did the rest with two superb solo tries.
“I tell you one thing about Tamika,” said Knights coach Ronnie Griffiths.
“She’s extremely humble and she’ll talk about her teammates and how good they went.
“We look at the one-on-one strip on Sheridan; we look at the captain’s defence; we look at Caitlan Johnston’s second stint and how good that was; Yasmin Clydesdale’s effort areas. Tamika’s undoubtedly a class player but she knows that the team around her allows her to do a job.”
The Knights have plenty of attack to throw at opponents. Once they go into the right part of the field, that was there for all to see, as Upton, Southwell and Shanice Parker all showed what they can do with the ball.
But on the nuts and bolts, set-for-set style, they were a clear second best. The attacking efficiency was always there, but had far too little chance to shine.
When they got there, the effects were imposing. Upton tore the Titans to shreds, and it was as if they knew that she would.
Her first try, the leveller late in the second half, was a classic example: the Titans looked for the slide and anticipated the wonder pass so much that a huge gap opened in the middle for the fullback to go through herself.
For the second, the stood off again, opening the opportunity for the kick and chase. Against a player as good as Upton, that’s fatal.
Southwell’s role was more understated, but no less important. Her kick and control was what broke the field position stranglehold, with close to 400m off the boot, and her direction in getting the ball to Upton remains exceptional for a player so young.
Watching the Gold Coast this year, it’s not been hard to pick the strategy: this is one of the best NRLW defences we’ve ever seen.
From kick-off, the ability of that defence to manipulate where the game was played was to the fore: by the time Chapman opened the scoring, the Titans were nine from nine sets with the ball and had enjoyed 86% of the territory. Newcastle had precisely one tackle in their half.
With the Titans, their defence isn’t about stopping the other team as much as it is about removing the opportunities for them to put on their attack.
There was a bit scramble – Chapman’s trysaver at a vital point of the second half springs to mind – but mostly, it was about keeping Upton and Jesse Southwell out of the game by ensuring they were a long way away.
At times, that has the effect of making them a little dull: the forwards and outside backs were relentless in getting a roll on, then making the Knights truck it back.
Their tries were all about accumulation and pressure, the sort of death by a thousand cuts footy that Penrith have excelled at in the men’s game.
Plenty of that was down to the halves. Lauren Brown was exceptional, both in setting up all of the Titans tries but also with her boot, turning the Knights around and making Upton run the ball back.
In the end, however, that style was somewhat their undoing. In both halves, they came away with too few points from their dominance and tired badly in the heat.
Playing in temperatures of 35-degrees plus, the high-pressure, high intensity style proved a little too much.
“To play like they did today, this team has a grit about it – they play to the final whistle,” said Murphy.
“We’re really disappointed because we believed in ourselves and to not get the result today hurts. But I couldn’t be prouder. They improved every week all year and they were right in it until the end.”