Sydney Roosters might not be quite outplaying South Sydney at the moment but, having recorded their fifth win in succession, are taking the minor premiership battle – as well as perhaps the major one – to their rivals.
While Souths looked impressive even without Greg Inglis on Saturday night, the Roosters were equally strong against better opponents than the Rabbitohs faced, Newcastle at Hunter Stadium. If the battle the two clubs are involved in off the field is anything to judge by, the prospect of their clash on the field in round 26 is mouth-watering.
The Roosters faced a committed Knights team which put significant pressure on their opponents. But the Roosters refused to buckle, despite a heavy penalty count against them and a vocal Newcastle crowd.
A match between two of the competition's in-form outfits, and which included Willie Mason and Sonny Bill Williams, was always going to be entertaining. And the two old teammates were in much of the early action.
Mason and Williams had not been on the same football field since 2008. Teammates in the 2004 grand final with the Bulldogs, on that 2008 occasion they were opponents, Mason with the Roosters and Williams with the Bulldogs.
There was some feeling between the pair during the early stages, when Williams put his shoulder into a tackle on the now Knights front-rower. Mason had a bit to say then, and after 15 minutes, he was shaken up by another hit by Williams, whose shoulder struck the Newcastle player on his significant chin. It prompted former Knights halfback Andrew Johns to reminisce in the commentary box about the time he was struck by Williams, likening it to being "kicked in the head by a horse".
When the tempers settled down, the tries started. Roosters centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall opened the scoring, coming down with a Mitchell Pearce bomb. The Knights hit back just three minutes later – as the Roosters pressed for a second. Another Pearce kick this time found Knights fullback Darius Boyd, who weaved for 75 metres and just outpaced Roosters winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to score. Thus Pearce had kicked for the opening two tries, only one of which was scored by his team.
But then it was the Knights' turn to gift the Roosters a try. Just after the half-hour mark, centre Michael Jennings stalked a Jarrod Mullen cutout pass and pounced on it before racing away to score.
Not long after that, Mason limped off with a torn calf, ending his typically drama-plated match.
The Roosters started the second-half as they finished the first. Boyd's fumble from a Pearce grubber put the Knights under pressure; the Roosters kept the foot on their opponents throat with some cute offloading before front-rower Sam Moa stormed over. But halfway through the second half, the Knights finally clicked into gear. A slick movement left, which Wayne Bennett's teams must run through in their sleep, finished with Boyd putting James McManus over.
The Roosters' ill-discipline, their Achilles heel this season, started to cost them. Penalties kept the Knights camped in the Roosters quarter and, with 13 minutes remaining, the Knights decided to convert one of them, to put them within a converted try of their opponents. But it would be the closest they got; five-eighth James Maloney put Boyd Cordner through a small hole with a wonderful ball, and the second rower – whose angled run was just as impressive – finished off the contest.
The Knights' decision to take the two points, having ignored several opportunities in the previous few minutes, started to look like a "sounded like a good idea at the time" moment. Hooker Jake Friend put Williams over with four minutes remaining. Williams had the last laugh over Mason, and the Knights, although whether he will be available for the Roosters' next clash, against Penrith on Friday night, remains to be seen.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS 28 (B Cordner M Jennings S Kenny-Dowall S Moa S Williams tries J Maloney 4 goals) bt NEWCASTLE 12 (D Boyd J McManus tries T Roberts 2 goals) at Hunter Stadium. Referee: Jared Maxwell, Gavin Morris. Crowd: 22,847.