Mid-Season Review: Newcastle Knights

Position after 13 rounds: 12th
Wins: 4
Losses: 8
Byes: 1
Points: 10
Differential: -63

Starts to seasons don’t come much worse for professional sporting teams. Before a whistle had even been blown, forwards Chris Houston (resigned) and Danny Wicks (stood down) faced criminal drugs charges.

The Knights’ Round 1 victory over the Bulldogs put to bed one of the worst off-seasons in NRL history, but for the next month things continued to deteriorate. The second-week loss to the Storm was compounded by a 36-12 flogging at the hands of the Sea Eagles, then a terrible slip saw a come-from-behind effort from the Panthers on Easter Monday.
 
Round 5’s loss to the Issac Luke-inspired Rabbitohs at Bluetongue Stadium must’ve had some fans looking to next year… but a victory was just around the corner. The Cowboys, without Johnathan Thurston, obliged in giving the Knights’ fans something to cheer about, but again the Knights couldn’t string wins together – they handed the Sharks just their second victory in the past 17 matches.

However, the disappointed was tempered – the fans’ emotions being toyed with like a kitten at a ball of string – when Newcastle recorded their first win at Suncorp Stadium since 2004. And the rollercoaster ride continued – a 13-try thriller against the Titans and a loss on the siren. An impressive victory against the Roosters and disappointing losses to the Tigers and Panthers round out what has been, at best, an up-and-down start to the season.

The potential’s certainly there, but will the Knights fill it?

Are Things Going To Plan?
Four wins from 12 matches isn’t going to please any fan… but it could’ve been a whole lot different had the Knights learnt how to defend in the off-season.

So far in 2010 Newcastle have six times conceded 26 points or more in a loss – including tit-for-tat 34-30 and 38-36 defeats to the Panthers and Titans respectively. At times their defence is paper thin – and it no doubt cost them wins in at least those two aforementioned matches.

Injury Front… It’s no surprise 30-year-old Steve Simpson is having a spell at the moment – initial reports indicate his knee is so worn down that bone is grinding against bone as he runs.

Adam MacDougall is no shock to see in the casualty ward either – the veteran centre has played just four games so far this year.

But there’s no doubt Kurt Gidley’s knee injury, suffered in the All Stars match in February, had fans worried the most. The Knights’ linchpin at first was thought to have snapped an anterior cruciate ligament – a season-ending injury – but was later revealed to have been a significantly less severe injury, a hamstring strain, which he returned from against the Cowboys in Round 6. No surprise the Knights won, either.

If Only… The Knights had learned to concentrate in games! Too often this season they’ve almost literally fallen asleep after taking a commanding early lead. It’s a sign of inexperience – something the Knights’ fans can surely understand, following the not-too-distant departures of Danny Buderus and Andrew Johns – but the lack of intensity in some periods of play isn’t something coach Rick Stone is likely to let the players forget.

Dropped balls, missed tackles, lack of communication and moments of madness – anything a local under-8s side might be guilty of committing on a Saturday morning – the Knights have certainly done so far in 2010.

If they rectify their brain-snaps, there’s definitely enough talent in their line-up to keep teams honest – and still, possibly, challenge for the top eight at the end of the season.

Who’s Flying… Almost every match, two Knights stand head and shoulders above their team-mates. Fijian flyer Akuila Uate and ball-playing back-rower Cory Paterson have been dominant forces so far this year, having an influential hand in the Novocastrians’ four wins.

Ultra-speedster Uate’s 13 tries from 12 games places him just behind Panther Lachlan Coote on the try-scorers’ list, and it’s not just his finishing that’s been impressive. Against the Roosters he scored from his team’s kick-off – soaring to the sky in midfield before jinking, jiving and diving to the tryline – and he’s pulled off more than his fair share of try-saving tackles, too.

Paterson has also been a shining light. He’s developed into the complete footballer in 2010. No longer is he just a brilliant offloader – he’s now also a dominant force on the fringes of the ruck who can lay on a terrific hit, too.

Needs To Lift… It’s tough to single out any one Knight here – the entire team, bar Uate and Paterson, have some improvements left in them. If they don’t, it’s going to be a very long off-season. Of particular concern is the defence on the edges of the ruck, particularly when defending their own tryline – if that doesn’t improve the Knights’ 2010 campaign is as good as over.

Cory Paterson Tells NRL.com… “Consistency on our game is the big issue. We just need to concentrate for the full 80 minutes and not slacken off. In the games we’ve lost defence is the issue, but we can defend as well as any team – it’s just a matter of us concentrating for the full game. There’s plenty for us all to work on, and if we do we can play as well as any team.”

Predicted Finish…
A favourable run with injuries – in particular to Adam MacDougall, who is a vital linkman – and the Knights could squeeze into the top eight at the end of the season… just as they did last year. But it looks unlikely – 13th.

Under-20s… Near enough if good enough for the teenaged Knights. So far in 2010 they’ve won six of 12 matches… but last start’s 64-32 loss to the 15th-placed Panthers doesn’t bode well for the future. Big things are predicted of fullback Peter Mata’utia – a player former Knights NRL coach Brian Smith rates highly. A major concern for the young Knights would have to be their defence – they’ve already conceded 406 points this season.