Newcastle’s halves duo Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga copped a bit of criticism after their narrow victory last week.
The Knights just came out on top 14-12, but their performance was unconvincing to NRL legends Phil Gould, Andrew Johns and Billy Slater.
Gould said Newcastle’s halves combination of Pearce and Ponga “didn’t get going”, and described their attack as “inept”. He also said Ponga looked “heavy-legged”.
On his Wide World of Sports segment Immortal Behaviour, Johns said to call them “inept” was a bit harsh, but agreed the Knights were “really poor” in that game against Manly.
“I thought Kalyn Ponga was quiet last week. He couldn’t impose himself on the game,” he said.
“But I saw the Knights’ game plan. They kept looking to go wide and turning the play back on the inside. They were trying to tire out Manly’s big men in the middle – so they didn’t have much flair.
“The key is now, especially this year, when you have that field position and momentum you need to get points. I thought they played too conservative. I wouldn’t say they were inept, but they were poor.”
Ahead of Newcastle’s Sunday clash against the in-form Parramatta Eels, former Kangaroos, Queensland Maroons and Melbourne Storm fullback Billy Slater explained exactly where Ponga and Pearce’s halves play fell apart against Manly, and how they can fix the issue.
Slater said Manly’s structure in that game, particularly how Brad Parker came up in line with Ponga while defending the Knights star was a constant headache for the playmaker, and dulled his impact.
By doing this Parker forced Ponga to make passes back on the inside or be easily tackled instead of running with the ball as he is accustomed.
“This can frustrate your attack and I think the Newcastle Knights certainly failed to prepare for what Parker was going to do in terms of his defence,” Slater said in his segment Billy’s Breakdown.
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Slater pointed to Newcastle’s round four upset over Canberra as a key example of what Ponga needs to go back to in order to avoid another disappointing performance like last week against Manly.
“[Canberra’s] Curtis Scott was behind the line, allowing Ponga time with the ball and to pick his decision,” Slater said.
“The other thing I like from Kalyn Ponga is when he gets the ball, he’s thinking, ‘Run’. He takes off, uses his legs and the pass will come if needed, but Kalyn’s number one strength is to run the football, using his footwork.
“If I’m [Knights coach] Adam O’Brien this week and I want my star no.1 to get back into form and back into the game, I’d be telling him to look at the Raiders game.
“Like off an offload, first thing he’s normally thinking is, ‘Run the football, use your footwork and your no.1 asset’.
“Kalyn Ponga and the Newcastle Knights had a bit of criticism with their attack last week but it’s easily fixed and a lot of it was put down to the Manly Sea Eagles’ defence.
“And the way that people and teams analyse the game these days, that’s the blueprint I’m sure the Parramatta Eels will look at [against Newcastle this weekend].
“It’s up to Newcastle whether they can evolve their attack and find a solution.”
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Johns predicted that the Knights would have learned a lot from the Sea Eagles game and expected Ponga and Pearce to bounce back again versus the Eels on Sunday.
“You’ll see a different team this week against Parramatta,” Johns said.
“I’d like to see Kalyn get more involved. Whenever the ball goes Pearce to Ponga that’s when they look dangerous.
“You want your best and most creative players getting the ball and that’s Pearce and Ponga.”