Position after 13 rounds: 9th
Competition points: 12
Possibly the biggest story of 2011 for the Knights has been the privatisation of the club, after a vote to accept a takeover bid from mining magnate Nathan Tinkler recorded an overwhelming majority.
It hasn’t yet translated into on-field success, however, although the Knights are well and truly in the mix at the midpoint of the season. After starting with a bang, recording big wins over the Panthers and Cowboys, Newcastle haven’t quite been able to go on with the job, and coach Rick Stone will be particularly disappointed at several extremely close losses.
If a couple of those had gone the other way the Knights could be sitting a lot better than their current position of ninth. Just one win out of the top eight with five wins and seven losses could easily have been seven wins and five losses and top-eight standing had they held on against the Wests Tigers in Round 13, or scraped home against the Roosters in Round 11.
Newcastle have suffered through not being able to get stars Kurt Gidley and Jarrod Mullen on the park at the same time, with the latter now likely out for an extended period with a pectoral injury.
It means an extended run in the top grade for off-season recruit Beau Henry who will now be crucial to the club’s hopes, alongside makeshift halfback and all-round Mr Fix-It Kurt Gidley.
Are Things Going To Plan? Things could be going a lot worse for the Knights but they could also be going a lot better. Injuries aside, the team has gelled fairly well and the Tinkler takeover brought a renewed spirit that will surely have a positive effect in the long run.
The stats suggest their current ladder position is about where they should be: the club ranks ninth for tries scored (38) and equal seventh defensively (40 tries conceded).
They have conceded the second-most offloads (165) of any club so far and concede the seventh-most metres per game across the ground (1350), suggesting if they can do more to wrap up the ball in tackles they could really help themselves in those tight games.
Injury Front… Newcastle have used 30 players in first grade so far this season – the equal most of any club – and several long-term injuries have seriously dented their chances of threatening the top teams this year. The Knights don’t have the depth of clubs such as the Broncos and Dragons, and the season got off to a terrible start when big off-season pick-up Neville Costigan broke his arm in Round 1; he only recently returned.
Club captain Kurt Gidley had a month off with a dislocated shoulder, and has hardly had time to settle in the eight games he has played due to shifting positions based on injuries to other players.
Possibly the most crucial injury for the Knights was the recent pectoral tear that will see halfback Mullen gone for potentially the rest of the season. It means Gidley is likely to be filling in at halfback but as good as Gidley is, Mullen’s kicking game will be impossible to replace.
Mullen really lifted a gear in 2011 with his accurate long kicks, finding space 77 per cent of the time, ahead of Chris Sandow and Johnathan Thurston (both 69 per cent) and Jamie Soward (59 per cent).
Also providing a distraction to Rick Stone have been injuries to Zeb Taia, Isaac De Gois, Shannon McDonnell, Junior Sa‘u and Adam MacDougall, who has played just twice this year due to bicep and knee injuries.
If Only… Wes Naiqama’s attempted conversion had sailed between the posts rather than drifted away to the left late in their 12-10 Round 11 loss. In what was a rare poor advertisement for rugby league the game was there to be taken as both sides failed to capitalise on the other’s mistakes. The Roosters looked lost without Origin halfback Mitchell Pearce and the Knights looked to be finishing much more strongly after fighting back from 12-0 down with two late tries. If Naiqama had tied that one up and forced it into golden point and enabled his side to snatch a win, the boost to morale and confidence would have been immeasurable.
That game was followed two weeks later by the Round 13 golden point loss to the Tigers, and if the Knights had taken the points in both those games they’d currently be well-entrenched in the top eight and looking to consolidate during what is surely the best run home of any team.
Who’s Flying… Our pre-season man to watch, Akuila Uate, has gone from strength to strength in 2011. His 140 metres gained per match is behind only Cowboys winger Ashley Graham (141.4 metres per game) among regular wingers. His 60 tackle-breaks is the most at the club and second for all NRL wingers, while his five tries are also the equal most by a Newcastle player in 2011. He has also grown from potential Origin candidate to one of the first Blues players picked on the back of his strong form in the first Origin game.
Our other pre-season tip, Chris Houston, is another who has met or exceeded expectations. After a year off in 2010 the tireless back-rower is making up for lost time, his 445 tackles second most at the club behind Matt Hilder. Combine that with his club-high effective tackle rate of 89.7 per cent and his contribution in defence is massive.
Needs To Lift… The Knights don’t have the star-studded forward pack of clubs such as St George Illawarra so they will need more from both their fringe players and major off-season signing Neville Costigan.
Costigan admittedly has missed plenty of game time after breaking his arm but 16.6 tackles per game at an effective rate of 80.6 per cent is short of what the club would be expecting of him.
No forward at the club averages more than Evarn Tuimavave’s 90.3 metres per game, and when you compare that to the numbers being produced by players like Aiden Tolman (145 metres per game), Petero Civoniceva (128 metres per game) and Luke Bailey (129 metres per game) you can see the kind of go-forward the Knights are missing out on.
They are actually running fifth in terms of total running metres per game with 1356, thanks to players in the backline but if the forwards were also producing big numbers they have the opportunity to really get a roll on in the middle third of the field.
Coach Rick Stone tells NRL.com... “This season has been close but probably not quite a pass mark considering we probably lost a couple of close games we should have won. We’ve lacked a little bit of polish at times. Continuity and consistency in our halves, and our decision-making and our kicking game need some work now with Jarrod out. We’ve only played four at home in the first 12 games we’ve played, so we’ve got a good flourish of home games to finish on.”
Predicted Finish… The long-term loss of Mullen is a big blow to a Newcastle side that was looking like a strong chance of pushing for a top-eight finish. They do still have a gentle run home with plenty of matches against sides currently outside the top eight, so if Gidley and Beau Henry can strike up a good combination in the halves and the forwards work together as a unit there’s no reason the Knights can’t scrape into the lower half of the eight.
Under-20s… The Newcastle under-20s have mirrored the senior side so far this season with five wins and seven losses for 12 competition points. They are sitting in 10th and like their NRL counterparts have a strong chance to push for a finals finish in the run home. Their differential of -44 is less helpful but could be quickly reversed given the high scoring nature of the youth competition. They have been on both the winning and losing end of a few 20+ points thrashings in recent weeks so consistency is clearly an issue they will need to address to push the top sides. Young prop and Brisbane recruit Korbin Sims, the younger brother of Cowboys Ashton and Tariq, has been a crucial player for the junior Knights. Sims averages 105 metres per game from 11.5 runs with 20 tackles per game, and also has a try and a try assist. Lock forward Ethan Cook has been another good performer, contributing 114 running metres and 30 tackles per game, as well as three tries and two try assists.