Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
1. Five from seven to open the season
If there was ever any doubt about the quality of players at Newcastle, fans’ concerns were put to bed just two months into the competition. The Knights started with wins against the Tigers (42-10 in Round 1), Cowboys (34-6 in Round 3), Raiders (28-12 in Round 4), Panthers (8-6 in Round 6) and Titans (30-6 in Round 7), to propel themselves to fifth on the ladder. The victories were the result of high completion rates and low missed-tackle counts – the calling card of master coach Wayne Bennett.
2. Sinking ship rights itself
Immediately after their five-and-two start to the season, though, things quickly turned gloomy. A drama-filled 21-20 loss to the Sharks in Round 8 marked the start of a slide – and by the end of Round 14, following six losses from seven matches, the Knights found themselves out of the top eight altogether. Six rounds later though, following four wins, including a last-minute eye-for-an-eye triumph against the Sharks, and a draw, Bennett’s boys’ comeback was well and truly back on track.
3. Storm battering
While the records show Melbourne defeated the Knights 16-14 in Round 14, few would argue the Storm were actually worthy winners. Following three consecutive losses, the Knights travelled south and for most of the match controlled proceedings… until a late Ryan Hoffman-Billy Slater one-two floored Wayne Bennett’s men. The loss, while a bitter pill to swallow, showed the Knights had finals potential and could push any team to the brink – and the performance catapulted them to three vital consecutive wins in the following weeks against the Titans, Bulldogs and Panthers.
4. Kicking class
Newcastle’s halves, particularly Jarrod Mullen, have proven a thorn in the side of opponents across the 2013 regular season. Their kicking game, in particular, has been creative, effective and incredibly hard to handle – the Knights have scored 21 four-pointers from kicks, equal third in the league. Mullen’s left boot has proven particularly lethal, with three 40/20s, in addition to a passing game that has netted eight line-break assists and a total of 21 try assists.
5. Left-field fun and games
Newcastle have been dynamic on the left-hand sideline with the ball in hand – they’ve scored 27 four-pointers on that flank this season (equal second in the NRL). Much of the credit needs to go to winger James McManus – the flying Scotsman, who represented the Blues in Origin III, has scored 19 tries. His inside man, Joey Leilua, has also been instrumental, touching down for 11. And they’re almost as dangerous on the other side, too, with the dangerous Dane Gagai and the amazingly athletic Akuila Uate stalking the right-hand flank.
6. Hungry, hungry metre-eaters
Few could stop the Knights’ metre-eating juggernaut in the 2013 regular season – moving downfield, at least. Newcastle averaged 1436.8 metres per match, the best record in the league. Plenty of praise needs to go to Akuila Uate (147.1 metres), Kade Snowden (138 metres), Darius Boyd (127 metres) and Dane Gagai (123.6 metres) who all averaged big gains across the regular season – and got their team into scoring position on a regular basis.
7. Disciplined bunch
While some fans questioned the attractiveness of the Knights’ play in 2013, no-one could argue the effectiveness of their strategy. Utilising a simple, if at times dull, game plan (they offloaded the least in the NRL with just 6.2 per game), Newcastle averaged just 9.2 errors per game, a record that places them second in the NRL.
8. Old heads, new focus
The addition of ‘new’ Knights hooker Danny Buderus, back-rower Jeremy Smith and utility Craig Gower has proven a stroke of genius. The acquisition of the three veterans, alongside the 2012 mid-season signing of forward Willie Mason, has resulted in increased competition, focus and dedication from the Knights’ squad – something that’s ultimately ensured the Knights secured a finals position this season. Their signings add tremendous playoffs experienced to Newcastle’s roster, too – the quartet (including Mason) have played in a total of seven grand finals since 2001. Clearly Bennett has signed proven big-game performers he believes can help take his side deep into the finals.
9. Safety at the back
When the ball goes high – or long, across field or along the turf – there’s no safer catchers of the football than the Knights. The Novocastrians have proven the most effective ‘defusers’ of all kicks in 2013 – they successfully deal with 75 per cent of opponents’ bombs, grubbers, chips, cross-field and long clearing kicks (equal first in the NRL alongside the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters). The credit for the Knights’ MacGyver-like efforts for defusing the stickiest situations goes to their regular back three of Darius Boyd, James McManus and Akuila Uate, as well as fill-in flankmen Josh Mantellato and Kevin Naiqama.
10. No dummies!
The Knights through the regular season have shown a willingness to do the simple things well – and there’s no team in the competition that runs with more explosive power from dummy-half. Newcastle top the table for tackle-breaks from the play-the-ball – the Knights have made 21 from dummy-half this season, while nine teams remain in single figures for the statistic! With such explosive running, the Knights have been able to gain momentum in their sets – a fact reflected in their record as the most destructive metre-eating team in the entire competition.
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