Newcastle Knights: Season Review

Regular Season
WINS: 13
LOSSES: 11
POSITION: 7th
HOME RECORD: 10 wins, 2 losses (=3rd)
AWAY RECORD: 3 wins, 9 losses (=12th)
 
After Finals
Lost 26-12 v Bulldogs to finish eighth.
 
BEST WINNING STREAK: 3 (rounds 4-6 and 8-10)
LONGEST LOSING STREAK: 3 (rounds 20-22)
PLAYERS USED: 29
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Isaac De Gois
TRIES SCORED (After 26 rounds): 85 (12th)
TRIES CONCEDED (After 26 rounds): 86 (7th fewest)
 
The Knights returned to the finals series in 2009, an achievement they can be proud of – but it was once again a year dominated by the drama surrounding now former coach Brian Smith.

From the moment Smith signed on at Newcastle for the 2007 season and beyond there were plenty of detractors ready to castigate the man over every minor team slip-up, but he nonetheless went about the business of cleaning the place out post-Andrew Johns.

After two seasons outside the top eight Smith had finally pushed the Knights up the ladder and transformed them into play-off and premiership contenders; however, a lack of faith from the Knights board, who offered to extend his deal by just one year, saw Smith surprise plenty by signing with the Roosters for 2010 and beyond on a four-year contract.

The shock news rocked the club. The fallout was that the players who had started to bleed for Smith started to fall away on the field. Whether the downturn in form was coincidence or not, the club sent Smith on his way and appointed successor Rick Stone late in the season to take over.

Stone managed to lift the Knights to a late flurry, enough to get into the finals seeded seventh, but a few key injuries in the lead-up to and during their sudden-death encounter with the Bulldogs cruelled their hopes.

Where They Excelled… The Knights may have finished mid-table in terms of points conceded but it was their defence that was their strength for most of the year. The side was actually the third most impressive team in the NRL in terms of effective tackle percentage but unfortunately they managed to miss their tackles in crucial moments.

They were also the best side in the competition at finding space with their long kicks, giving their kick-chase a chance to dominate on most occasions.

Once again the Knights also excelled at getting up for the big games. They beat some fancied oppositions at crucial times in the year and while they had a late-season slump they roared into the finals with a 35-0 shut-out of Penrith in a must-win sudden-death encounter.

Where They Struggled…
The Knights had some statistical problems, including leaking too many tries from kicks, with only the wooden-spoon Roosters letting in more tries to the boot.

They particularly struggled under the high ball, with half of the bombs hurled towards them unsuccessfully defused.

The Knights also struggled with metres gained, averaging 1299 a game which had them ranked 12th in the category.

The team seemingly also struggled with the Brian Smith defection, losing three straight after it was announced Brian was on his way at season’s end.

Missing In Action…
Injuries punctuated the Knights’ season and while it certainly wasn’t the major factor in their mid-table regular-season finish (it didn’t help) it was a major factor in their loss to the Bulldogs in the finals.

Isaac De Gois lasted just a few minutes in the match after taking a knee problem into the game and Zeb Taia was a virtual passenger after a shoulder injury. With just 15 fit guys and others carrying ‘niggles’, beating the ’Dogs away from home was just too much.

Cameron Ciraldo played just two matches before horrifically breaking his leg, Ben Cross was again out for the majority of the season, playing just seven games, Wes Naiqama played 14 of a possible 25, Steve Simpson 16, Cory Paterson 11, Cooper Vuna seven, James McManus 12 and Adam MacDougall 16.

Turning Point… In terms of their premiership dreams the turning point was losing Isaac De Gois in the opening minutes of the semi-final with the Bulldogs. Coach Rick Stone took a major gamble taking the injured De Gois into the contest and it backfired heavily. With Zeb Taia also far from his damaging best, the Knights were pushing the proverbial uphill with a pointed toothpick and eventually succumbed 26-12.

The Knights had an earlier turning point just to make the finals when, after three consecutive losses, Brian Smith was out and Stone was in. The change helped the Knights win three of their last four regular season games to push back into the top eight, starting with a cracking win over Melbourne.

Best Games… The above-mentioned 26-14 victory over Melbourne in Round 23 was a great win considering the pressure the team was under and there’s no doubt it kick-started a drive to the finals.

Then there was the great come-from-behind 24-18 win over the Dragons at Kogarah in Round 6, when Adam MacDougall and Wendell Sailor went head-to-head in a verbal pre-and post-match show. There were other great victories, like the 26-12 win over Manly in Round 4, the 22-14 win over the Bulldogs in Round 12 and the final round awesome 35-0 whitewash of Penrith when a finals spot was on the line.

Worst Games… Without doubt the worst performance for the Knights was their Round 21 home loss to the hapless Roosters. After Brian Smith announced he was moving to the tri-colours not long before the clash there was plenty of reason to prove he had made the ‘wrong’ decision… but the players were flat and uninspired, losing 30-18 in a dismal effort.

A week later they were smashed 40-8 by the Eels. The 36-10 loss to the Cowboys in Townsville in Round 11 was also one to forget.

Hold Your Head High…  Apart from his last game, Zeb Taia had a great season in the back row. He averaged 113 metres a match in the regular season, led the club with 12 line breaks and had 40 offloads and 97 tackle breaks.

As always captain Kurt Gidley was impressive all year, averaging 162 metres from fullback, Jarrod Mullen had his flashes of brilliance throughout the year on the way to 19 try assists and 10 tries.

Hooker Isaac De Gois proved Cronulla should never have let him go with great defence and some nice touches in attack. Richard Fa’aoso had some big moments off the bench and centre Junior Sau looks like a player with significant growth to come. James McManus had a great early season, all the way to Origin selection, before injury cut him down.

Coach Rick Stone says…
Knights coach Rick Stone: “I think our resilience and our ability not to beat ourselves is something that we’re going to continue to work on, and make sure that we can handle those little periods where we don’t get much possession and we can fight our way back from that.”

Second-rower Steve Simpson says…
“We have taken a step in the right direction this year, hopefully we can improve a little bit more next season. It would have been nice for a few things to come off for us but that is way it goes sometimes but we'll get there. We'll dust ourselves off and go again.

Conclusion… The Knights should take some solace from the year which had them back in the finals for the first time since 2006 but they would have liked to do a little better. The coach upheaval was unfortunate but the locals now have a local boy to lead their team so they’ll be happy. Ups and downs for sure but more ups than downs and a platform for the future is set in stone.