THE RECESSION THEY HAD TO HAVE
The Knights blooded a lot of new talent in 2016, but boy, was it painful to watch
PUNCHING BAG WOULD BE THE BEST METAPHOR for the 2016 Knights. With all the brutality of “Iron” Mike Tyson, teams took turns ripping into Newcastle without fear of retribution. On seven occasions, the Novocastrians let in 40 points or more – and no scoreline was more devastating than the 62-0 defeat to Cronulla at Hunter Stadium in round 10, their worst-ever home loss. Indeed, with a for-and-against of -253, you have to go back to Canterbury in 1935 to find a team with a worse points differential after the first 10 rounds.
They also lost a club-record 18 straight and had all but engraved their names on the wooden spoon before new coach Nathan Brown had even learned half his players’ names.
To be fair to Brown, he had no fewer than 35 names to memorise, including 11 first-grade debutants – competition highs in both categories. And therein lies the silver lining to the season from hell, as Trent Hodkinson explains.
“A lot of young guys have been blooded this year, which will only benefit us next season – it was a tough year but we’ll learn from it, have a big off-season and continue to work on our new combinations. I really think it’s onwards and upwards from here,” the halfback reckons.
“The club has plans in place to look at some experienced guys, so we’ll wait and see, but the good thing about the youth is there’s a lot of good talent there. They’re very energetic and very exciting players to watch, and having a year already under their belt will only help the club going forward.”
The Saifiti brothers, Mitchell Barnett and Nathan Ross all had breakout seasons and were rewarded with contract extensions.
The club’s experienced heads also stood up in difficult circumstances, in particular Queensland Origin star Dane Gagai. The fullback/centre was so impressive week-in, week-out, that he finished the season with a
RLW player ratings total of 128 – putting him on par with the likes of Tyson Frizell, Blake Green and Moses Mbye.
One of the most enduring images from the Knights’ season was Tariq Sims consoling Gagai as he burst into tears following the 62-0 thrashing from the Sharks. It was the first public expression of just how tough everyone at the club was doing it.
But let’s face it, the Knights’ season was always going to be the start of a rebuild. Saying Newcastle’s recent history has been tumultuous would be a gross understatement and Brown was brought in on a three-year deal to try to stabilise the proud club.
He’s openly admitted he couldn’t push his players as hard as he would’ve liked in his first pre-season in charge because of the lack of fitness and physical maturity of his young and inexperienced squad.
Add to that, long-term injuries to Jarrod Mullen, Robbie Rochow, Kade Snowden, the retirement of James McManus and co-captain Tariq Sims’ mid-season move to the Dragons, and you can start to see the enormity of the challenge that confronted the head coach – for all intents and purposes, Brown was turning out a NSW Cup side every week.
And yet, despite their adversity, the Knights were outstanding at times. They beat a full-strength Tigers 18-16 in round six, lost to the Kieran Foranled Eels by just two points in round 12, drew with the Raiders in round three, led the Green Machine 22-0 in their second clash in Canberra before being pipped in golden point, and scared the Storm twice.
All of which gives Newcastle’s marquee halfback reason to be excited about 2017.
“I thought we definitely improved in some areas, which was good – we had some games there during the season that we should’ve won and those performances build confidence,” Hodkinson says.
“Browny’s a great coach and he’s done really well with what he’s got here, so we need to work hard and reward him.
“Moving forward, he’s already warned us that we’re in for a big off-season . . . he’s made a few comments that next year we’re going to be extremely fit, and we’ll being doing everything we can to improve.”
It seems those in the inner sanctum believe Brown is providing the stability the club has been longing for. But now he needs to start winning games, and while Hodkinson refuses to make any bold predictions, he can see the corner being turned.
“We’ll just focus on getting ourselves right and having a big offseason,” he says.
“I’m not going to say top eight or anything like that, we just need to improve and get more wins on the board and give ourselves a chance of playing later in the year.”