Newcastle fans had to wait 468 days to watch their first-choice spine.
But, it was certainly worth it after the Knights enjoyed their best win of the season, rinsing a hapless North Queensland 38-0 at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night.
Kalyn Ponga made a successful return from a six-week lay-off with a groin injury to score two tries in a dynamic display that will breathe life into the side’s underwhelming campaign.
His comeback would also have been a welcome sight for Queensland, who will rush their star fullback into their line-up for the State of Origin dead rubber.
However, in a sour note for the Maroons, game-two custodian Valentine Holmes was put on report for a crusher tackle on Ponga late in the second half.
Ponga exited the field immediately after the incident and played down the injury post-game.
“It’s pretty stiff at the moment, but it’s fine. Yeah, I’ll be sweet (for Queensland). It doesn’t feel like there’s anything too wrong,” he said.
Mid-season pick-up Jake Clifford also haunted his former club, playing a hand in four of the Knights’ seven tries, while a vintage Mitchell Pearce gave the hosts’ attack the composure it has lacked.
Winger Dominic Young and utility Connor Watson had two tries each.
The victory not only ends a run of four losses in their past six games, but also marks their first set of back-to-back victories this season, lifting them to ninth on the ladder.
It was the first time this year the quartet of Ponga, Pearce, Clifford and hooker Jayden Brailey all appeared in the same game, with the latter missing most of 2020 with an ACL injury.
Ponga and Pearce had yet to play together this season but combined to give a taste of what could be to come over the second half of the season for the Knights.
In contrast, the Cowboys were without coach Todd Payten, who was forced to watch from his home in Townsville as he self-isolated due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The rookie mentor may have to go back to the drawing board after his side offered little at McDonald Jones Stadium, and have now lost three straight to drop to 10th.
Assistant coach Dean Young refused to pin the performance on their disrupted build-up.
“We thought it was good week actually. Obviously not having the head coach here isn’t ideal … but we’re not using the preparation as an excuse,” he said.
Ponga finished the contest with two try assists to go with his brace of four-pointers, carrying the ball for a team-high 161 metres and three tackle busts.
Both his set-ups were for Young, the first of which came on the hour mark after an electric 50-metre line break before turning in for his rookie flyer.
He showcased his quick thinking for the second, kicking across field after a Clifford tap back for Young, before Watson completed the rout late.
It took just four minutes for Ponga to make his mark, with Holmes spilling a Clifford bomb into the hands of Young, who found his fullback in support.
Clifford was instrumental in the first half, denying Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow a spectacular long-range try minutes before intercepting a pass that led to Jacob Saifiti crashing over.
A Clifford kick also ended in Watson claiming their third, before he was also involved in a left-side raid that resulted in Ponga’s second try and a 22-0 halftime advantage.
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