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Ponga magic not enough to save Knights

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His return played a key role in Newcastle reaching the 2021 NRL finals, but Kalyn Ponga couldn’t lift the Knights one more time, despite a massive individual performance.

A bullet-pass from the talented fullback gave the Hunter outfit some hope when winger Enari Tuala secured his hat-trick.

However, a controversial call in the dying minutes enabled Parramatta to claim the elimination final 28-20 on Sunday.

Ponga also set up two tries at Rockhampton’s Browne Park.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s game was a horror show for experienced half Mitchell Pearce.

In a first half to forget, the 32-year-old didn’t make a running metre and missed five tackles.

In comparison, Eels’ halfback Mitchell Moses made five runs for 85m with four tackle busts and a crucial individual try nearing the break.

Things didn’t get much better in the second half for Pearce.

After Tuala’s try had got the Knights firmly back into the game, he dropped the resulting kick-off – halting his team’s momentum just as the Eels appeared to be reeling.

Later in the half, Pearce sent a bomb high into the central Queensland sky only for the ball to drift into the in-goal, allowing Clint Gutherson to catch it and defuse another spell of Newcastle pressure with a seven-tackle set.

Bradman Best, the 20-year-old damaging centre, also had little impact on the game.

In his first finals appearance, he managed 154 running metres but couldn’t make a linebreak. 

He also committed two handling errors to gift the Eels possession.

Pearce’s future at the Knights is far from certain amid reports he’s been shopped around to rival clubs but Ponga and Best are key planks of Adam O’Brien’s future plans.

Having ended Newcastle’s long wait for finals football last year and backing it up in 2021, the coach will be hoping his two young stars can stay fitter for longer next year to give his team hope of firing when it matters in 2022.

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