The Knights blooded a lot of new tal­ent in 2016, but boy, was it painful to watch

Rugby League Week - - Rlw 2016 Annual - BY �JOE� McDONOUGH

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.”

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