Newcastle 16 Cronulla 22
Up close and personal ... Andrew Fifita and Jeremy Smith. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
Cronulla scored three converted tries in the last seven minutes, including the match-winner in the final 30 seconds, to swamp Newcastle 22-16 in the NRL trial at Scully Park in Tamworth on Saturday night.
The Knights controlled the game for all but the final stages and appeared to own the game when Peter Mata'utia scored a converted try to extend their lead to 16-4 in the 69th minute.
But former Knights Jonathan Wright and Isaac De Gois scored tries in the 73rd (Wright), 76th (De Gois) and 80th (Wright) minutes as the Sharks snatched the game from Newcastle's grasp.
The Knights emerged from a first-half blackout to lead 10-0 at half-time after halfback Kurt Gidley and fullback Darius Boyd combined on both edges to create tries for wingers Kevin Naiqama in the 17th minute and Aku Uate in the 25th.
In a moment reminiscent of the epic fail during American football's Super Bowl earlier this month, Scully Park was plunged into darkness when the floodlights went out in the 14th minute, delaying play for 12 minutes.
Gidley converted Naiqama's try from the left-hand touch-line but could not add the extras from the opposite side of the field after Uate scored. Naiqama had another chance in the 33rd minute but spilled Boyd's pass with the line looming, then Gidley was held up by desperate Cronulla defence just short of the line as the half-time siren sounded.
Both sides were guilty of handling errors in the greasy conditions but the Knights did a better job of defending theirs. When the Sharks did penetrate Newcastle's red zone, they coughed up possession.
Cronulla were without the services of playmaker Todd Carney and star recruit Luke Lewis.
Carney is still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and Lewis has a torn abdominal muscle.
Winger Beau Ryan was replaced in the opening minutes after suffering a knee injury during the warm-up and prop Bryce Gibbs appeared to aggravate a calf injury as he attemped to come on during the second half.
The Knights started with Matt Hilder at hooker in place of former NSW and Australian skipper Danny Buderus, who will miss the opening rounds of the season after undergoing back surgery last month.
Tyrone Roberts came on for Hilder late in the first half and played dummy-half, which allowed Gidley to remain at half.
Sharks and NSW skipper Paul Gallen started on the bench then came on in the 23rd minute for his first appearance of the season.
Cronulla began their fightback when Uate spilled a bomb on the Newcastle line in the 48th minute and the Sharks made him pay, winning the subsequent scrum then forcing an overlap on their right edge for winger Stewart Mills to touch down. Fullback Michael Gordon missed the sideline conversion attempt but the try sparked the Sharks into action and they looked more threatening as they forced the Knights into errors and penalties, and feasted on the scraps.
Knights coach Wayne Bennett was disappointed about the way his team finished the game but, under the circumstances, was pleased with their overall performance. Bennett rotated a 27-man squad and the Knights finished the game with most of their senior players on the bench. "I made that choice at the end, to take all the top players off, so I realised that probably put us under a fair bit of pressure but I got what I wanted out of the trial, and I just wanted to give them a bit of an opportunity," Bennett said. "But for 60-odd minutes there, we were pretty good, and with better ball control we could have been even better but the rest was really good, but as I said, I took all the top-liners off."