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Mid-season review: Newcastle Knights

Position after 13 rounds: 12th
Wins: 4
Losses: 8
Byes: 1
Competition points: 10
Differential: -55

It was marketed as the rebirth of the Knights. A new era of success was, supposedly, going to be quickly ushered in with the appointment of supercoach Wayne Bennett, the signings of star fullback Darius Boyd and prop Kade Snowden, along with the return of home-town hero Danny Buderus.

But the Knights – with just four wins so far in 2012 – have been displaying anything but signs they’re premiership-bound, as some experts predicted at the start of the season.

They made a positive-enough start to the season though, suffering just a one-point loss in the opening match against the Dragons before toughing out a victory against the Sharks at Toyota Stadium the following week. From Rounds 3-8, Newcastle continued to show promise, going loss-win, loss-win, loss-win, suffering defeats only to fancied opponents including the Broncos, Storm and the Dragons (again). Since Round 9 though, danger signs have emerged in far-from-impressive efforts against the Roosters, Cowboys, Gold Coast and Broncos.

Even their coach – a mentor known to remain loyal to his troops in the toughest of times – has had a dig at his players recently. After the disappointing showing against the Titans in Round 12, Bennett observed at his post-match press conference: “It’s probably the most disappointed I’ve been all year… you hope by week 12 you start to win a few battles, but tonight we just went backwards.”

How the team – which will remain without the services of captain and playmaker Kurt Gidley, who made a sprinkling of appearances early before finally suffering a season-ending injury against the Panthers in Round 8 – reacts in the second half of the year will determine whether they push for finals football… or whether they fall into the post-Round 26 wasteland.

Are Things Going To Plan? It seems difficult to imagine they are, even with the super-cool Bennett in charge and no doubt reassuring his players that the season is still well and truly theirs for the taking.

Of most concern is the Knights’ lack of points – they’ve scored more than 20 points in a match on just three occasions thus far in 2012… and two of those were losses. Newcastle might disappointingly concede 20.6 points per game (17.3 points per game before the Round 13 blowout against the Broncos), but it is their offence, which averages just 16 points per game (ranked 15th in the NRL) and is now sans-Gidley, that is the real concern.

The coaching staff have covered for the loss of their influential No.6 (or 7) by shifting regular halfback Jarrod Mullen to pivot and promoting 20-year-old No.7 and former Junior Kangaroo Tyrone Roberts. At his best, as he showed in glimpses in his debut season, Roberts is an all-round threat – in seven games in 2011, the he broke 22 tackles, made three line-breaks, two line-break assists and one try assist.

For the Knights to start performing well and rocket up the ladder, Roberts and Mullen need to gel – very quickly.

Injury Front… It’s not the number of injuries that have hurt the Knights but more the players who have suffered them.

Gidley and Buderus, Newcastle’s two most-experienced players, have suffered injuries which have restricted their number of appearances. The two went down in the same game against the Panthers in their Round 8 victory – and it has adversely affected the team’s performances ever since. Gidley suffered a dislocation of his shoulder, initially injured in Round 2, prompting season-ending surgery. Buderus (Achilles) returned against the Gold Coast in Round 12. Both injuries were particularly costly, given the team also lacked the services of fullback Darius Boyd and winger Akuila Uate in the lead-up to the first State of Origin game (as they do for Origin II). Ryan Stig is currently sidelined with a blood clot to the eye, but has returned to light duties after a check-up with a specialist. Stig’s expected comeback is still four to five weeks away.

All up Newcastle have used 25 players so far, about middle of the NRL pack.

If Only… Newcastle could halt the go-forward of their opponents. The Knights struggle to stop opposition charges – they concede 1431 metres per game, the most in the NRL and almost 200 metres more than the competition’s top-echelon sides including the Broncos, Rabbitohs and Storm.

Who’s Flying… No surprise that Akuila Uate is one of the Knights’ best performers again this season. The flying winger is Newcastle’s most determined runner of the footballer – he’s run for more metres (125.4 per game) and more tackle-breaks (42) than any other Newcastle player. He’s also broken the line more times (nine) than any other Knight and scored the most tries (six, one ahead of Mullen and opposite winger James McManus).

In the forwards, Chris Houston continues to roll up his sleeves recording the most tackles for his team (503 – second in the NRL) and well as 133 runs so far this season. Departing back-rower Zeb Taia, who recently announced he’s leaving at the end of the season for the Catalans Dragons, is also making a good fist of 2012. You certainly can’t fault his effort – the former Eel and Kiwi rep has made second-most runs (152) for his club in addition to the third-most tackles (303).

Needs To Lift… The Knights’ highly regarded off-season recruits really need to kick into gear for the team to start firing.

Fullback Darius Boyd has appeared a shade of his former self in Newcastle, so far failing to recapture the form that helped lead the Dragons to so much success under the tutelage of Wayne Bennett. Halfway through 2012, Boyd has managed to deliver just four try assists, three line-breaks and two line-break assists. In 2011 at the Dragons, in 22 games he scored nine tries, broke the line 10 times, set up 11 tries and created 13 line-breaks. Incredibly, Boyd’s yet to score a try for his new club.

Former Shark Kade Snowden is also a little down on input after moving back to Newcastle in the off-season. Snowden was the rock of Cronulla’s pack in 2011, with strong performances that not only saw him attract the attention of Nathan Tinkler, but also Australian selectors. In 2012, though, he’s failed to stamp his authority on opposition packs in the middle of the park – while he’s averaging 120 metres, he’s broken just 18 tackles and offloaded 14 times. In 22 games last season he broke 45 tackles and offloaded 47 times. Halfway through this season he’s already made eight errors, too – almost already at his 10-error total of season 2011.

Assistant Coach Rick Stone tells NRL.com… “Obviously it’s been a bit frustrating with the high expectations… and in fairness I don’t think we’ve played to the best of our ability,” Stone says.

“Early on we were really competitive and tried hard but our attack probably wasn’t performing as well as we would’ve liked… and in the past few weeks we’ve lost a bit of that confidence and competitiveness. It’s going to take some time.

“Wayne’s a massive figure here and the boys are still coming to grips with some of the things he’s bringing to the table and there are some small adjustments that need to be made… Wayne’s a big-picture type of person and those foundations are in the making – discipline, really decent fitness and really decent resolve… they’re building blocks he’s using in our team.

“We’ve got to worry about pleasing ourselves… and making sure we’re hitting our own targets we want to hit and being pleased in our own performance, which at the moment we’re not.

“The fire is well and truly still there and I know there have been a few things written about our place in recent weeks, but Wayne has been really good in how he’s handled our team and he’s continued to instill belief.

“I don’t think there’s any panic around the place… the boys are focused on winning some games and putting themselves in the position to make the semi-finals.”

Predicted Finish… It is unthinkable to imagine Wayne Bennett’s men failing to launch a late-season charge on the back of some intelligent tweaking from the supercoach… but it’s going to be very difficult for his side to compete – and defeat – premiership contenders without their best player. Their run home is especially difficult – they play the Raiders away in Round 21, before meeting the Bulldogs, Sharks, Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Rabbitohs to end the regular season. We think it’s too tough a run for the Knights. Expect them to finish 12th or 13th… and for Wayne Bennett to miss the finals series for just the second time in 21 years.

Under-20s… The Toyota Cup is a bright spot in an otherwise so-far-difficult season for the Knights club. Newcastle’s under-20s currently sit in fourth position following seven wins and a draw. The Knights’ young guns have the second-tightest defence in the comp so far this season, leaking just 221 points in their matches – just 20.1 points per game, a low number for the points-rich competition. Fullback Kurt Mann has been particularly impressive, regularly running for more than 100 metres in a match, including a mammoth 249-metre performance against the Storm in Round 5.

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