Newcastle's third straight loss took a back seat to concern over the health of Knights back-rower Alex McKinnon after Melbourne Storm won a see-sawing contest 28-20 at AAMI Park on Monday night.
McKinnon left the field on a stretcher in the 40th minute after he was driven head-first into the ground in a dangerous tackle by Storm forwards Kenny and Jesse Bromwich and Jordan McLean, who were all reported and will face further scrutiny from the NRL match review committee.
The crowd fell silent and the game was stopped for more than five minutes as McKinnon, who tucked his head towards his chest just as he was tackled, lay on the ground, was treated, and placed on the stretcher.
The 22-year-old Aberdeen Tigers junior was taken by ambulance to Prince Alfred Hospital for precautionary x-rays but there were reports from the Newcastle dressing-room that he had movement in his arms and legs.
That sombre moment took the sheen off an otherwise entertaining contest in which the Knights were competitive and committed but, ultimately, outclassed and outsmarted by Storm generals Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.
Knights skipper Kurt Gidley waged a running battle with referees Gerard Sutton and Gavin Morris, who awarded the penalties to Melbourne 15-7.
It was Newcastle's third successive defeat this season and sets up a game against Cronulla, the NRL's only other win-less team, at Hunter Stadium next Sunday.
In winning their third on the trot, the Storm climbed to second spot and went some way towards avenging their 18-16 loss to Newcastle in last year's finals.
Smith gave his side a 2-0 lead in the fourth minute after the Knights conceded three penalties in the first three minutes. Newcastle went six minutes before their first attacking set, starting from good field position after Melbourne back-rower Ryan Hoffman was called off-side on a kick chase, and against the run of play posted the first try a minute later.
Five-eighth Michael Dobson put back-rower Beau Scott into the clear then from the next play, Dobson trickled a grubber kick into the right-hand goalpost and Jeremy Smith gathered up the rebounded ball to plant the ball behind the post. Gidley's conversion made it 6-2, sparking the Knights to life after they were starved of possession in the early going.
Newcastle had a chance to extend their lead in the 12th minute but winger James McManus juggled and ultimately spilled Joey Leilua's deft pass into the in-goal area. Storm prop Jordan McLean went close to levelling the scores three minutes later but lost the ball as he lunged for the line.
Gidley's penalty goal extended Newcastle's lead to 8-2 in the 19th minute after Melbourne prop Jesse Bromwich was cautioned for a lifting tackle on Robbie Rochow. Just as the Knights appeared to be gaining the upper hand, the Storm regained momentum when Leilua lost the ball in a tackle, Mahe Fonua shovelled the scraps to Sisa Waqa, and the flying Fijian streaked away on a 55-metre gallop, beating Gidley, Rochow and Tyrone Roberts before touching down.
Gidley complained that Proctor stripped the ball in the tackle but referees Gerard Sutton and Gavin Morris dismissed his protests. It was a sign of things to come as the Storm increased the tempo and the Knights, growing increasingly frustrated, conceded a string of penalties to try to stem the flow.
Left winger Young Tonumaipea burst into the clear in the 26th minute to force the Knights into their own territory, and after three straight sets Cooper Cronk delivered a sweetly timed flat pass for Proctor to score.
Smith converted for a 14-8 lead but could not add the extras after Cronk and Billy Slater combined to send Will Chambers over to score in the 33rd minute, leaving the Storm with an 18-8 advantage and threatening to run away with the contest.
Roberts kicked a penalty goal after McKinnon left the field to cut the deficit to 18-10 at half-time.
Melbourne kicked away to lead 24-10 four minutes into the second half when Tonumaipea flew above Aku Uate to catch Cronk's chip kick and touch down in the corner, then Smith converted from the sideline.
Newcastle continued to find themselves off-side with the officials, conceding three penalties on their own line, but refused to buckle and hit back with two tries by Uate in the 51st and 61st minutes to trim the margin to 24-20.
Uate caught a Roberts chip kick to find space outside Tonumaipea and score, then 10 minutes later he took a Dane Gagai flick pass after Dobson created space with a cut-out pass.
Further penalties against Dobson for face-raking and Leilua for a high tackle gave the Storm prime field position and Smith darted over from dummy-half to score in the 67th minute, stretching the lead to 28-20, but his conversion attempt hit the posts.
Knights coach Wayne Bennett thrust former New Zealand international David Fa'alogo into the run-on side, relegating Willie Mason to the bench.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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