Kalyn Ponga made a successful return from a six-week layoff with a groin injury to score two tries in Newcastle’s 38-0 win over a hapless North Queensland.
Lopsided scorelines were the order of the day as round 16 of the NRL continued on Saturday, with Manly scoring a record 66-0 victory over Canterbury and Gold Coast hammering Canberra 44-6.
In Newcastle, Ponga’s comeback would have been a welcome sight for Queensland, who will rush its star fullback into their line-up for the State of Origin dead rubber on July 14.
But in a sour note for the Maroons, Valentine Holmes was put on report for a crusher tackle on Ponga late in the second half.
Ponga exited the field immediately after the incident.
Newcastle’s mid-season pick-up Jake Clifford, who is a former Cowboy like Ponga, played a hand in four of the Knights’ seven tries, while a vintage Mitchell Pearce gave the host’s attack the composure it has lacked.
Winger Dominic Young and utility Connor Watson scored two tries each.
The victory not only ends a run of four losses in their past six matches for the Knights, but also marks their first set of back-to-back victories this season, lifting them to ninth on the ladder.
It was the first time this year the quartet of Ponga, Pearce, Clifford and hooker Jayden Brailey all appeared in the same match, with the latter missing most of 2020 with an ACL injury.
Ponga and Pearce had yet to play together this season, but combined to give a taste of what could be to come over the second half of the season for the Knights.
In contrast, the Cowboys were without coach Todd Payten, who was forced to watch from his home in Townsville as he self-isolated due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The rookie mentor may have to go back to the drawing board after his side offered little in Newcastle. They have now lost three straight to drop to 10th place on the ladder.
Ponga finished the contest with two try assists to go with his brace of four-pointers, carrying the ball for a team-high 161 metres and three tackle busts.
Both his set-ups were for Young, the first of which came on the hour mark after an electric 50-metre line break before turning in for his rookie flyer.
He showcased his quick thinking for the second, kicking across field after a Clifford tap back for Young, before Watson completed the rout late.
It took just four minutes for Ponga to make his mark, with Holmes spilling a Clifford bomb into the hands of Young, who found his fullback in support.
Clifford was instrumental in the first half, denying Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow a spectacular long-range try minutes before intercepting a pass that led to Jacob Saifiti crashing over.
A Clifford kick also ended in Watson claiming their third, before he was also involved in a left-side raid that resulted in Ponga’s second try and a 22-0 half-time advantage.
Sea Eagles thump Bulldogs in historic win
Manly has recorded the biggest win in its 74-year history, as Tom Trbojevic’s hot streak continued in the flogging of Canterbury.
Trbojevic added another hat-trick to his long list of achievements for 2021, while Jason Saab also claimed three tries.
Reuben Garrick also equalled the Sea Eagles record for the most points in a match with 30 via two tries and 11 conversions.
The win was also the biggest in the NRL since Parramatta beat Cronulla 74-4 in 2003.
In doing so, the Sea Eagles also became just the fourth side in history to post 50 points in three straight matches after also wiping out North Queensland and Gold Coast in their last starts.
But this was by far their most dominant day.
With no crowd at the Western Sydney Stadium and very little resistance in defence from Canterbury, this felt every bit like a training run for the Sea Eagles.
The Bulldogs were their own worst enemies in what qualified as their worst performance in recent memory.
In Kyle Flanagan’s return to the halves Canterbury could not force a missed tackle out of Manly for the first 37 minutes.
The Bulldogs’ last-tackle options were routinely poor, with the ball twice finding front rowers on the final play in two of their best attacking opportunities.
They were also regularly stripped for numbers on the edges, with Saab in particular busting down field regularly.
All of Trbojevic’s tries came in that fashion in the space of 18 minutes, when both he and Daly Cherry-Evans put Saab free and the fullback loomed up in support.
About the only thing that did not go the fullback’s way was when he put his brother Ben over for what should have been his first NRL try with a pass over the line, only for it to be called back for an obstruction.
By that point the Sea Eagles were well on their way to toppling their previous biggest win of 70-7 over Penrith in 1973.
Trbojevic also put Garrick over for Manly’s first try, while sending Saab over for one of his tries.
Prop Toafofoa Sipley also bagged a double as he made light work of Canterbury’s middle, while second rower Karl Lawton got one.
The win moved Manly into the top five at the expense of the Sydney Roosters, becoming the first change to the top group of teams since round five.
Titans humiliate Raiders
Returning fullback AJ Brimson, winger Phillip Sami and strongman David Fifita all starred as Gold Coast snapped a four-match losing streak to humiliate Canberra.
The temperature plummeted to three degrees Celsius in Canberra during the match, with the Raiders losing their sixth match at home this year.
The Titans bounced back from losing four matches in a row to stay in touch with the top eight.
Brimson returned from a knee injury to make more than 150 running metres, Sami logged 185m and Fifita was a powerhouse, albeit with a spell in the sin-bin for late contact on Raiders halfback Sam Williams.
Jamal Fogarty scored a try and had six conversions.
After losing nine of their past 11 matches and with their season on the line, the Raiders were embarrassed in front of meagre crowd of 7,646 spectators.
Canberra captain Jarrod Croker highlighted his side’s ineptitude when he fumbled the ball to allow centre Brian Kelly to score an easy try in the 46th minute.
The poor showing was also marked by Canberra missing 69 tackles during the match.
The Titans lead 22-0 at half-time, running in three quick tries just before the break despite Fifita being in the sin-bin for a chunk of that time.
Brimson was impressive, laying on a sweet pass for Proctor to score in the 31st minute, and Moeaki Fotuaika dotted down four minutes later.
Fogarty picked up a remarkable four-pointer in the 38th minute after taking the ball from dummy half and crossing the line without any defensive pressure by the Raiders.
Things got no better in the second half as the visitors laid on another four tries, with the Raiders’ consolation coming in the 56th minute when Williams scored his side’s lone four-pointer in his 100th match.