Newcastle have confirmed their first NRLW finals berth by beating Parramatta 18-16 at McDonald Jones Stadium.
The Knights failed to win a game in their inaugural season but are now undefeated through the first three rounds of the 2022 campaign, meaning they cannot be ousted from the top four with two rounds to play.
The Eels’ Tayla Preston threatened to snatch the game from the error-prone Knights when she set two tries up from kicks in the second half on Sunday afternoon.
But in the final two minutes, Newcastle hooker Olivia Higgins crashed over from dummy-half for her second career try to level the scores at 16-16.
Kirra Dibb missed a crucial tackle that gave the visitors their first try but made no mistake with her conversion of the Higgins four-pointer, confirming a win for the home side.
“It means a lot,” Knights coach Ronald Griffiths said of his side’s finals place.
Olivia Higgins celebrates what proved the match-winning try for Newcastle.Credit:Getty
“But whether we made the semis or not, our community just wanted a performance they could be proud of.
“That’s what we’ve challenged our players to do.”
Parramatta are still hunting their first victory of the season and must now defeat last-placed Gold Coast next week to have any chance of qualifying for the finals.
The Eels were left to rue an 8-4 penalty count and their inability to penetrate the Knights’ goal line defence in the first half.
Despite enjoying a breeze at their backs and the best efforts of second row pairing Christian Pio and Vanessa Foliaki, Parramatta only had a 6-4 lead to show for their efforts at half-time.
Tayla Predebon reached over just after the break to give Newcastle the lead for the first time but Parramatta coach Dean Widders questioned whether the prop may have lost control of the ball at the line.
“From what I’d seen, it didn’t look like (a try),” Widders said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the explanation on it just so I can understand.
“Parts (of the game) really ripped the soul out of our team but we just kept digging in.
The Knights have shown rapid improvement since their first season in the NRLW.Credit:Getty
“I thought our effort was outstanding.”
Widders said he would not escalate the matter if unsatisfied with the NRL’s explanation.
“We’ve got to move on,” he said. “We’ve got to get ready to win a game next week.”
Preston took it upon herself to wrestle the momentum back for the Eels.
She first found Tess Staines with a cross-field bomb and then provided another kick for centre Rikeya Horne, whose second try well and truly breaks a dry spell that stretched back to 2018.
But the Eels could not hold on when the Knights rolled downfield and had their hearts broken in the shadows of full-time.
A suspected MCL injury kept Newcastle winger Autumn-Rain Stephens Daly from returning for the second 35.
Parramatta’s Najvada George was placed on report in the first half for an apparent hip-drop tackle on young half Jesse Southwell, who was able to play on despite ankle discomfort, while Knights recruit Yasmin Clydsdale was reported for a high tackle.
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