Newcastle 14 St George Illawarra 15
Dragons defeat Knights
The Wayne Bennett era at Newcastle got off to a losing start at Hunter Stadium with his former St George Illawarra side spoiling his welcome party with a dramatic 15-14 golden-point win. All pictures by Darren Pateman, Ryan Osland and Peter Stoop / Newcastle Herald. Selected Images available from www.fairfaxsyndication.com. Follow us at http://twitter.com/photosSMH. Photo: Darren Pateman
Steve Price, take a bow. You took your team to your coaching mentor's new house and came away with the win. There might be seven games left in the opening round of the NRL, but there won't be a better coaching performance come out of any of them. St George Illawarra haven't forgotten how to get the job done, they're just doing it under a different coach.
Newcastle, on the other hand, are clearly a work in progress - but that's not a bad thing. Master coach Wayne Bennett has them heading in the right direction, it's just going to take time for them to reach their destination.
And what about the way it was decided, with a Jamie Soward field goal for 15-14 in extra-time? Soward, the player Bennett virtually created, knocking over his old coach first-up.
Bennett would have spent all summer preaching discipline and getting the basics right to his players, so the complete lack of discipline shown by his veteran centre, Timana Tahu, would have gone down very poorly with him. Tahu, in possession, used a knee on a player on the ground - Dragons forward Matt Prior - 15 minutes into the second half, and was penalised and reported. The Knights were deep in attack at the time.
All summer, the talk had been about how Bennett was the messiah who would take the Knights back to the top. How the Dragons were in trouble not only because Bennett had gone, but because star player Darius Boyd had gone with him, Mark Gasnier had retired and Bennett's replacement, Price, could write his first-grade CV on the back of a postage stamp - and still have a space the size of a postage stamp left over.
But Price had learnt from his time under Bennett, and had matched his old boss when it came to being conservative with his public utterances during the non-playing months. It wasn't until the days leading up to the Charity Shield and a mountain of interview requests were sitting there that Price was finally convinced by the club to talk. And that's when it first became publicly clear that he had something.
Price might have been a rookie at this level, but the noises he made were those of an experienced man. There was no uncertainty. He was sure about things, and his loyalty to his players shone through. He was all about preparing the team as well as he could for round one, and not worrying about anything else. Following Bennett in? He knew he couldn't be Bennett, so why even think about it.
Price concentrated on what he could control, and he did a great job in producing the Dragons in the sort of form that gave them a chance of winning on the road against their old coach and his new team at a ground that was already traditionally hard to win at and was pretty close to a sell-out, such was the level of expectation of Knights fans.
The Dragons were the more expansive team, and they still have that desperation in defence. They made a point of kicking away from dangerous Knights winger Akuila Uate on the last tackle, even if the regular kicker - Soward - had to pump the ball clear across the other side of the field to do so. This negated one of Newcastle's strengths: the ability of Uate to run the ball back with a head of steam against a possibly uneven defence.
It was a nervous night, because the Dragons could never quite get away from the Knights. They led 8-2 in the first half, and got pulled back to 8-6 before half-time, and then led 14-6 in the second half before the Knights drew level and forced extra time. And then came the killer blow. Soward, coming back to haunt Bennett. What a way to finish.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 15 (M Cooper B Morris tries J Soward 3 goals J Soward field goal) bt NEWCASTLE 14 (J McManus J Mullen tries K Gidley 3 goals) in golden-point extra time at Hunter Stadium. Referee: Matt Cecchin, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 29,189.