Mitchell Pearce lands the winning field goal in his first NRL match for the Knights. (AAP: Darren Pateman)
On a night when Johnathan Thurston was marking his 300th NRL match by helping North Queensland defeat Cronulla 20-14, Mitchell Pearce was perhaps taking the words of his State of Origin adversary to heart.
When Pearce joined Newcastle after quitting the Sydney Roosters late last year in response to their signing of Cooper Cronk, Thurston questioned the decision, believing the 2013 premiership player could have “learned a lot” from his former Queensland and Australia teammate.
“Cooper’s a big game player, knows how to get the job done,” Thurston said last November.
“I think that’s what Mitch has probably lacked over his career – how to close out big games.”
A round one NRL fixture for the Knights against Manly at Hunter Stadium may not have been what Thurston had in mind, but Pearce still “got the job done” for his new club with an ice-cool field goal from 20 metres out in the penultimate minute of extra time.
Pearce clinched a 19-18 golden point victory for the Knights to help usher in a fresh era in Newcastle under coach Nathan Brown, while young guns Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson impressed in their debuts for the blue and red.
Watson, who also joined the Knights from the Roosters, was not surprised Pearce pulled off a clutch play to seal the win.
“He’s a finisher and that’s what he did last year for the Roosters and he’s going to that plenty of times for us this year at the Knights,” Watson told Grandstand.
Pearce and Manly counterpart Daly Cherry-Evans both missed chances earlier in extra time, but the former Rooster sent the Knights’ biggest home crowd since 2016 into delirium.
The Knights earlier looked to have victory secure in regulation time before Cherry-Evans kicked a 39-metre penalty goal in the dying minutes to force the contest to golden point.
While Pearce was the eventual hero, 19-year-old Ponga’s performance will be the one that has Knights fans dreaming of long-term success after three consecutive wooden spoons.
The recruit scored the Knights’ first try of the match when he broke through three Manly defenders to cross with his quick feet in front of 23,516 spectators.
He also put in two certain try-savers on both Manly wingers in the second half, just as the Sea Eagles threatened to take control of the match.
Cowboys mark JT’s milestone with victory over Sharks
Johnathan Thurston enters the field for his 300th NRL match with his daughters Frankie (L) and Charlie. (AAP: Michael Chambers)
The loss of Michael Morgan could not stop the Cowboys toasting Thurston’s 300th NRL appearance with a hard-fought victory over the Sharks in Townsville.
The night was always going to be about Cowboys co-captain Thurston on Friday, who kick-started his 17th and final season with his landmark match that also eclipsed Matt Bowen’s club record.
And Thurston revelled in the spotlight by setting up two tries, including a 78th-minute match winner to back rower Gavin Cooper.
“When people ask me about the 300 games it’s something I’m extremely proud of,” Thurston said.
“It’s an illustrious group … I’m very proud.”
Morgan was the name on everyone’s lips before kick-off after succumbing to an abdominal strain and he was replaced by Te Maire Martin in the starting halves alongside Thurston.
But Thurston ensured the limelight was again firmly on him by celebrating in style in what was his official return from a shoulder injury, which cut short his 2017 season.
Thurston did not waste time making an impact as the Cowboys grabbed a 14-8 half-time lead on the back of Kyle Feldt scoring in the 35th minute off a Martin ‘Hail Mary’ pass.
But Martin turned villain when he threw an intercept to Ricky Leutele, who set up James Segeyaro for a 68th-minute runaway try to keep matters interesting.
Thurston ensured it went to script when his clever grubber was snapped up by Cooper with two minutes left on the clock.