Winners are grinners: Manu Vatuvei manages a smile through a pile of Knights bodies after crashing through for a try. Photo: Hannah PetersThe New Zealand Warriors all but snuffed out Newcastle’s already faint finals hopes with a 38-18 thumping of the Knights at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday.
In their first game since former owner Nathan Tinkler and his Hunter Sports Group management company severed ties, the Knights tried hard and hung in for long periods, but paid the price for unforced errors to slump to their fifth consecutive loss and ninth from 11 games this season.
Sitting equal last alongside Cronulla on six points, the Knights face the highly improbable task of having to win 10 of their last 13 games to return to the finals.
The immediate future looks much rosier for the Warriors, who have won four of their past five games to move into the logjam on the edge of the top eight.
It was the Warriors’ eighth win from their past nine games against the Knights at Mt Smart Stadium, and captain Simon Mannering celebrated the twin milestones of his 200th game for the club and 100th as skipper with two first-half tries including one from his own grubber kick.
Giant winger Manu Vatuvei also bagged a brace for the Warriors in their first appearance at their spiritual home ground this season, after three matches at Eden Park and another in Wellington, in front of an appreciative crowd of 19,068.
The Knights made an encouraging start, posting first points in the sixth minute when Tyrone Roberts caught Jarrod Mullen’s kick to the middle to touch down under the posts. Towering winger Josh Mantellato, in his second NRL start as a late replacement for the injured Aku Uate (knee), converted from in front for a 6-0 lead.
Newcastle suffered a blow in the 10th minute when prop Kade Snowden took an accidental knee to the head trying to tackle Ben Matulino and he was helped from the field on wobbly legs.
Finding room to move up the middle and on the fringes, the Warriors struck back with three tries in 13 minutes — all from kicks — to take a 16-6 lead by the 24th minute.
Captain Mannering was an unlikely first try-scorer for the home team, regathering his own grubber kick to score in the 11th minute, and the Warriors backed that up with two more from Shaun Johnson cross-field bombs.
Manu Vatuvei, making up for an earlier handling error that led to Newcastle’s first try, flew above Mantellato to bat Johnson’s kick back for fullback Sam Tomkins to score in the 18th minute, then Vatuvei combined with Johnson again six minutes later to out-leap Mantellato and score one for himself.
Warriors wrecking-ball Konrad Hurrell suffered an apparent arm injury after in the 23rd minute but returned 11 minutes later, seemingly none the worse for wear.
Just when it looked like the Warriors would run away with the game, the Knights hit back in the 30th minute when centre Joey Leilua recovered a Roberts grubber behind the Warriors’ defensive line to touch down.
Mantellato converted to cut the deficit to four points and the Knights would have been satisfied trailing by that margin at the break but playmaker Jarrod Mullen’s attempted trick shot 90 seconds from half-time back-fired.
Inside their own defensive red zone, Mullen tried to chip kick for winger James McManus but the ball went out on the full to hand the ball back to the Warriors in prime field position.
The Warriors needed just a couple of plays before Feleti Mateo flicked a pass to Mannering, who crashed over for his second try.
Newcastle refused to yield, clawing back within four points again when Roberts spun in a tackle and passed for Robbie Rochow to score in the 53rd minute, and Mantellato’s conversion made it 22-18.
But when Chris Houston spilled a pass under minimal pressure 25 metres from his own line, Ngani Laumape picked up the crumbs to send Chad Townsend over for his first try in Warriors colours and a 28-18 lead in the 63rd minute.
A restarted tackle count gave the Warriors another attacking set deep in Newcastle territory and Johnson and Tomkins combined to send Hurrell over in the corner in the 74th minute.
Vatuvei emerged from a pile of bodies on the Newcastle line to score his second try a minute before full-time, and Johnson converted from the sideline after the siren.
The Warriors made a clean sweep of the three grades, accounting for the Knights 34-12 in NSW Cup and 34-22 in the National Youth Cup (under-20s).
WARRIORS 38 (S Mannering 2, M Vatuvei 2, S Tomkins, C Townsend, K Hurrell tries; S Johnson 5 goals) d KNIGHTS 18 (T Roberts, J Leilua, R Rochow tries; J Mantellato 3 goals) at Mt Smart Stadium.
Half-time: Warriors 22-12
Referees: Gavin Badger, Gavin Reynolds
Report: 52min David Fusitua (Warriors) for striking
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