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Ponga proves his worth as O’Brien’s Knights claim Canberra scalp

As far as honeymoon periods go, O’Brien’s is flawless – not that he would admit it.

“It’s on them,” O’Brien deflected. “I think what they’ve done from day one … they’ve worked really hard. I’m thrilled to be in this position. It’s a weird first year for me as a coach, there’s a lot of stuff going on, but they’re a great bunch.

“They were a team [that], at the back end of the year, all they were reading about was how they turned it up and gave up, how they don’t don’t care and all this. It’s not the case.

“They’re thrilled to be on the other side, but they know it can quickly change if we don’t remain pretty steely in terms of our week and our training and our preparation.”

A combination of Ponga’s return from suspension, ex-Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough’s club debut and captain Mitchell Pearce’s full game a week after being concussed aided O’Brien’s cause.

Remarkably, the Knights blasted to a 22-point lead early in the second half before the Raiders flirted with a fightback thanks to a flying leap from Nick Cotric and a barnstorming solo effort from Josh Papalii.

There was nothing normal about the two non-Sydney teams meeting at a neutral venue in Campbelltown, where even Raiders boss Don Furner patrolled one grandstand as a ballboy.

Kalyn Ponga's return from suspension gave Newcastle a boost.

Kalyn Ponga’s return from suspension gave Newcastle a boost.Credit:AAP

Injured Raiders star John Bateman got a laugh out out of his teammates when he ordered a cardboard cutout of co-captain Josh Hodgson to sit behind the Raiders bench.

But Ricky Stuart would not have seen the humour in his side’s first-half display, which was lightyears away from their victory over Melbourne eight days prior.

“I don’t take anything out of it all tonight,” Stuart fumed. “I’ll cop a loss and get beat by a better football team, which they were tonight. We were a blip on what we believe we can be. It was the worst we defended for two years. We played like children tonight.”

It was an apt description, at least for 18-year-old Best.

He crashed over for the first try before Ponga jigged through the Raiders’ line to extend the lead to 10 points.

Jack Wighton soared high into the air off a George Williams kick to cut the margin to four, but the hero quickly turned villain when he dragged down Enari Tuala a couple of minutes before the break as he chased a Best kick, resulting in a penalty try.

Edrick Lee’s early second-half double, both set up by sumptuous Ponga balls, had the Knights cruising to a third win in their opening four matches before the Raiders rallied.

On Ponga, O’Brien said: “For me, it’s what he gives us in our meetings during the week and how direct he is with his feedback.

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“For a guy that’s not completely passionate all week about footy, he knows a lot about it and he’s pretty good at coaching it with everyone and letting them know what he expects of them. That’s the thing that has impressed me. His leadership qualities have been outstanding.”

Wighton and Ponga both finished the match with concussion assessments while Newcastle No.6 Kurt Mann limped off in the dying moments with an ankle injury.

And as for O’Brien? He hasn’t limped through the first few months of his gig at Newcastle, but fairly flown.

Now Bellamy awaits.

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS 34 (Edrick Lee 2, Bradman Best 2, Kalyn Ponga, penalty tries; Ponga 4, Tex Hoy goals) defeated CANBERRA RAIDERS 18 (Jack Wighton, Nick Cotric, Josh Papalii tries; Jarrod Croker 3 goals) at Campbelltown Sports Stadium. Referee: Ashley Klein.

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