Jake Clifford has no regrets about his mid-season transfer from Townsville to Newcastle after spearheading the Knights to a 22-16 defeat of Canterbury that all but secures their place in the finals.
Clifford, who made the move in round 12 after the Cowboys signed Tom Dearden from Brisbane, scored a try and laid on two others as the seventh-placed Knights claimed their fourth consecutive win against the brave Bulldogs.
With a four-point buffer between Newcastle and the other teams still in contention for the finals, the seventh-placed Knights need just a win or draw against the Titans or Broncos to ensure a play-off berth as they have a -131 differential.
Newcastle coach Adam O'Brien will focus on improving the team's attack but star fullback Kalyn Ponga has only made 11 appearances this season, halfback Mitchell Pearce has played eight matches and Clifford has worn the Knights jersey on nine occasions.
Match: Bulldogs v Knights
Round 23 -
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast
Significantly, Clifford has partnered Pearce in the halves in five matches and Newcastle have won all five.
“I am loving it. It was a tough decision but for me and my career moving to Newcastle has been a great move so far," Clifford told Fox Sports.
"I am eying off a finals spot and I am really excited for the next couple of weeks."
Knights captain Jayden Brailey described Clifford as the best player in the win and O'Brien praised him after the 23-year-old for his composure.
“I saw a lot of growth there from Cliff there today," O'Brien said. "Just before half-time he put one into touch and he didn’t drop his bundle.
"He went after the game in the second half and he had a big hand in two tries so he has added a lot to us."
Clifford with the big show and go
Newcastle led 10-0 at half-time but Canterbury could consider themselves unlucky after a bombed try by winger Corey Allan and a number of tough refereeing calls against them.
However, the Bulldogs also committed five first-half errors and conceded four penalties, while second-rower Corey Waddell was placed on report twice for a late tackle on Mitch Barnett and another incident in which he tried to rip off Kalyn Ponga’s head gear.
The difference between the teams in the opening 40 minutes was the attacking direction of Pearce and Clifford, who each laid on a try with deftly placed grubber kicks.
Jacob Saifiti scored his side’s opening try in the 10th minute after Barnett tapped back a Pearce grubber before it bounced over the dead-ball line and there were no Canterbury defenders chasing the kick to prevent the Knights prop from grounding the ball.
Newcastle winger Enari Tuala scored his seventh try in four weeks when he swooped on a perfectly placed grubber by Clifford behind Canterbury’s right-edge defence of Will Hopoate and Jayden Okunbor in the 27th minute.
Barnett with the effort play to tap it back for Jacob Saifiti
The Bulldogs appeared to have hit back just four minutes later when Allan won the race for a grubber by five-eighth Lachlan Lewis that bounced awkwardly for Ponga but replays showed the former Queensland Origin representative had knocked on trying to ground the ball.
However, Canterbury overcame a bad start to the second half, when Kyle Flanagan attempted to trap the ball with his foot from the kick-off and it propelled towards the chasing Knights, to narrow the deficit to 10-6 in the 45th minute.
Melbourne-bound fullback Nick Meaney was the try-scorer after a reverse grubber by Lewis into vacant space in the Newcastle in-goal.
The try sparked the Knights into action and Clifford extended their lead to 16-6 when he dummied and ran between Waddell and Flanagan to score with barely a hand being laid on him in the 58th minute.
Okunbor with his entry for try of the year!
The Newcastle five-eighth then backed up a break by Connor Watson to send centre Bradman Best racing away to finish a 65-metre try in the 62nd minute.
“He is a freak of a player - and so gifted and so strong - so to see him steaming up outside me I was happy to give him the ball," Clifford said.
However, Canterbury’s loan prop Ryan James kept his side’s hopes alive when he crashed over nine minutes later.
Okunbor then latched on to a cross-field Lewis kick to score a stunning try with 37 seconds remaining on the clock but time ran out for the Bulldogs.
“We were struggling at times, we had a lot in good field position, we just couldn’t nail the finishes on the end of it, but we backed our defence and found a way to win," Brailey said.
"I think defensively we have really shown up over the last month and that is really important when you get to the finals."