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Season review: Newcastle Knights

Ben Everill, NRL.com Wed, Oct 03, 2012 - 10:00 AM

Kurt Gidley played just five games before succumbing to a shoulder problem. Copyright: NRL Photos

Wins: 10
Losses: 14
Position: 12th 
Home Record: 5 wins, 7 losses (=11th)
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses (=9th)
  
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 19-21)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Rounds 9-15, byes in Round 11 & 15)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 80 (11th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 81 (=6th)

Wayne Bennett is human! Can you believe it… the supercoach finally had nothing to mentor during a final series for the first time since 1991! Newcastle fans were hoping Bennett’s arrival would bring immediate success, much like he gave St George Illawarra in his stint with the Dragons. In his first year with the Red V the Dragons were minor premiers. They may have been bundled out of the finals, but they were a benchmark team. 

However, in his first year at the Knights, the Newcastle boys never met ‘benchmark’ quality. 

They were infuriatingly inconsistent, unable to put back-to-back wins together until the second half of the year. After a dismal middle portion of the draw they showed some heart towards the end of 2012, getting on a bit of a run and flirting with the top eight – but the cold hard facts are the last time they were inside the finals zone in 2012 was after Round 8, with their fairytale dreams quashed by a hat-trick of losses to close out their year. 

To be fair, they didn’t have the same class of cattle Bennett inherited at the Dragons. And they lost Kurt Gidley early in proceedings – a blow they never recovered from. The real measure will come from next year, as Bennett begins to add his stamp to the player roster. Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott, premiership winners at the Dragons in 2010, are joining the side. And the decks have been cleared of those men not on board with the Bennett philosophies. The season ended with rumours about some financial issues surrounding owner Nathan Tinkler… one can only hope they aren’t a concern after he swept to power on the promise of securing the future of the club. 

Where They Excelled… The Knights weren’t leaders in many categories in the NRL in 2012. One plus was they conceded the fewest number of tries from kicks, a small badge of honour particularly for the back three. 

They were also the most prolific team at scoring tries on the left sideline and the best side in the competition when it came to defence on the sidelines. The Knights conceded the fewest tries in the NRL on both the left and right sidelines… sadly that couldn’t be said for the fringes and middle. 

They were also good at limiting line-breaks, ranked fifth in the NRL… but sadly allowed opposing teams to turn too many of said line-breaks into points. 

Where They Struggled… There were plenty of headaches. As mentioned earlier consistency was a huge problem early as they embarked on a loss-win sequence over the first nine weeks of the competition. In terms of statistical issues… where do we start..? They were ranked 12th for scoring points, averaging just 18.7 a game. The loss of Gidley didn’t help; and Darius Boyd took a long time to find his place in his new side. 

They were also ranked 12th for metres gained, and 14th in metres conceded – hardly a good combination. 
They were last in the NRL in offloads and last in offloads conceded… again, not a good combo. 

When it came to errors they were ranked equal second worst in the competition and while they were great at stopping tries from kicks, they were terrible at scoring tries from them, ranking bottom of all sides. 

Also, the Knights had no idea how to score from close range, ranking second last in the NRL when it came to scoring tries within 10 metres of the opposition try line. 

Missing In Action… Kurt Gidley played just five games before succumbing to a shoulder problem, the single biggest injury issue the Knights faced. Overall they used 29 players, the second most called on by any team. It wasn’t solely due to their injury toll however; more because Bennett was finding out more and more about his team and how they might fit into his schemes. ‘Bigger’ names to miss games included Matt Hilder (10), Junior Sa’u (8) and Wes Naiqama (6) – although they weren’t due to cuts or scrapes.

Turning Point… Once again, we can’t overstate how damaging the loss of Gidley was. Tyrone Roberts did a nice job filling in as best he could in the halves, but he just wasn’t as potent as Gidley. It put too much on the shoulders of Jarrod Mullen and Darius Boyd and they just couldn’t form a cohesive connection until the latter part of the year. 
In terms of what part of the year was the beginning of the end, it was surely the 24-6 loss to the Roosters in Round 9.

It was the beginning of a five-game, seven-week losing streak, leaving the side well off the pace. This period looks even worse in hindsight as they lost to the Cowboys, Titans and Raiders at home and were belted by the Broncos in Brisbane. Trying to climb the NRL Everest from there was always going to be tough and while they responded with five wins in their next six games, they were simply under too much pressure to keep performing. They had to play their last six games against teams who made the finals – and could only win two of them. 

Best Games… Early in the year the Knights struggled for consistency but they did throw in a nice 20-6 win over the Bulldogs who were already proving themselves a force to be reckoned with. It was a gutsy win away from home against a previously unbeaten side and they kept the opposition scoreless for 78 minutes. 

But the real purple patch for the Knights came towards the end of the year. They belted Manly 32-6 in Round 19 in a must-win match, with young Roberts playing one of his best games. Two rounds later they travelled to Canberra and belted the Raiders 36-6 to keep their roll going, with Kevin Naiqama continuing his rise on the wing, giving the Knights a potent combo of Uate and Naiqama on the flanks. 

In Round 23 they faced another must-win game at home against the Sharks and once again came up with the goods, winning comfortably 26-4. But the run of wins still proved too late. 

Worst Games… The most disappointing effort in the Knights’ season would have to be their first half performance in the Round 24 games against the Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval. A great run of form had the Knights just a win outside the top eight with three rounds remaining but they were humiliated by the 2011 premiers. From the kick-off their season headed for the scrap heap… it sailed out on the full and the Sea Eagles started a rout. It was 38-4 by halftime and the game was gone. It ended up 42-20 as the Sea Eagles took the foot off the gas but considering what was on the line it was a terrible defensive effort by the Knights. 

They went on to lose the next two games also, to put a full stop on a disappointing year. 

Other poor games were heavy home losses to North Queensland (32-12) in Round 10, the Titans (24-14) in Round 12 and the Raiders (32-16) in Round 14… most unlike any Newcastle team to allow such embarrassment in front of the Novocastrian faithful. 

During the poor run they were also hammered 50-24 by the Broncos in Brisbane. 

Hold Your Head High… Chris Houston, Jarrod Mullen and Alex McKinnon were the only three Knights to play in every game and they toiled hard throughout the season. 

Akuila Uate may have been dropped from New South Wales duty but he was still stellar for the Knights with 25 line-breaks and 18 tries for the year. He also averaged an impressive 144.7 metres a match. 

Danny Buderus showed his return wasn’t a poor decision, playing well enough to be heading for Origin selection before injury cruelled his chances.

Coach Wayne Bennett says: “We were a bit off the pace compared to the top teams. But we’re bridging the gap and we’ll get it right. We’re not there yet and that’s what the off-season is going to have to bring for us.

“We have some new players coming and the confidence in some of the younger players gained from this season will help. Obviously Kurt is coming back also so there is a lot to look forward to. 

We need to nail the pre-season and get it right and build up through the games from there.”

Conclusion… There was enough late in the year to suggest Bennett might just get some polish on this team over the off-season. They weren’t great in 2012 but some big arrivals in Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott will turn the side into a gritty unit. With Gidley back on deck the attack should also improve. In the wash-up the Knights can be forgiven this hiccup of a year – but fans won’t be so forgiving should it repeat in 2013.

*Statistics - NRL Stats