The Newcastle Knights are set to make back-to-back appearances in the Tarsha Gale Cup grand final, after recovering from a 12-nil start by the Dragons to book their ticket to the big dance.
The young Knights scored a 36-28 win in the preliminary final against Illawarra, completing a plan that coach Josh Potapczyk had started the team on “twelve months ago”.
“Pretty excited to be back in another grand final, especially after last year. It was always the plan to try and get back to the decider again, but to be able to make that plan twelve months ago and see all those plans come off is very satisfying,” he said.
After falling to the Tigers in the first week of the finals, Potapczyk revealed he turned focus for the squad to mentality. While the team’s talent was clear, and phsyically they were near the best in the competition, they needed to work on “being more resilient” from first whistle to last.
“When we didn’t have momentum we knew we had to be more resilient in staying in the game, and wrestling the game back,” he explained.
“On the weekend it was big, because we were down 12-0 within eight minutes but the girls didn’t panic, and we knew once we got into a bit of a rythm we’d be right back in it. We went into the first back at 12-10 and we had that confidence that we could do that.”
It was fullback Jorja Holden that got the team off the mark. The young star cut through the Dragons’ left side defence, beating four to streak away to the line. It was the breakthrough the girls in red and blue needed in the preliminary final, and one that changed the game.
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For the Knights boss, it was a special moment. Holden had made a series of mistakes against the Sharks, and he had lined up a challenge for her – put that to one side and go again for the team, and the club.
“She had a massive improvement, she was able to control her mindset and really use that natural talent to be a gamebreaker,” he said. “She scored that first try through individual brilliance and skill, took on the line, and went right through. She showed she strong she can be, and that she can bounce back strongly from anything.”
After Holden’s opener, Joeli Morris crossed for her first of the afternoon to give the Knights a 10 points to 12 deficit at the first break. The halfback dummied close to the line, before breaking through two defenders before inching over the line under four defenders.
Newcastle were able to grab three more after the first break to firmly taking control of the contest. First winger Ashlee Russell made good use of an end-over-end passing movement from the Knights, before Holden grabbed her second of the afternoon and Olivia Kernick joined the scoring.
A lapse for the Knights saw the Dragons cross three times in the next twenty minutes, with only Holden rounding out her hat-trick closing out the game. The Knights captain and rampaging forward Caitlan Johnston sealed the deal with a diving try in the dying minutes of the match.
For Potapczyk, heroic efforts from Holden, as well as Morris, Johnston, and rake Bree O’Neill were “key” in the stoic win at St Mary’s League Stadium.
“Those four were absolutely massive in a really good team performance. Caitlin put in a captain’s performance after we lost one of our middle players and she had to play more minutes than was planned,” he said. “She never stopped putting her hand up for those tough carries even with the extended minutes. Her, and our hooker Bree O’Neill, cause the Dragons nightmares down the middle and picked them apart.
“Joeli was also great, and has been solid all year. She has been very, very consistent. She showed her ability as a senior player to control the game, and got us around the park. It was probably her most dominant performance this season.”
While those four stars were key in the victory, Potapczyk laid the praise on his entire outfit after they punched their ticket to the decider.
“Everyone made sure that we made it through to the grand final, and it was a very strong performance from the entire team,” he said. It puts us in a good place for the grand final this weekend, we know this is going to be tough because the last time we played the Steelers it came down to literally the last set of the game to decide who won.
“It’s a really good thing for the competition that the two top teams are meeting in the grand final, there’s been a split match difference between us all year. Even just from a fan of rugby league I’m excited for this great contest.”
The Knights play the Tarsha Gale Cup decider this Saturday, as part of a triple header of representative finals at the nearly open Bankwest Stadium in Sydney. The match is set for 11am as the curtain raiser, and will be available to stream on nswrl.com.au from an hour before the first matches.
Grand Final team list: 1. Jorja Holden, 2. Ashlee Russell, 3. Petria Symington, 4. Jasmin Strange, 5. Carissa Harrison, 7. Joeli Morris, 8. Kayla Romaniuk, 9. Bree O’Neill, 10. Cody Campbell, 11. Olivia Kernick, 12. Caitlan Johnston. Interchange. 13. Tanaya Millar, 14. Zoe Coyne, 15. Jada Beale,16. Ella Buteux, 17. Lily Hanning, 18. Terri-Lee Van Wyk, 23. Georgia Bragg 25. Naydine Wahanui.