How the Knights-Sea Eagles rivalry began

There will be more than one long-time supporter of the Newcastle Knights who will survey the modern surrounds of Ausgrid Stadium this Sunday and think back to a day early in 1988 when it all began for the Hunter city’s favourite football team.

The sight of the Sea Eagles making their way onto the arena for the NRL’s Rivalry Round will be enough to unleash a torrent of memories for old-time fans who packed into the ground then known as the Newcastle International Sports Centre on a sweltering February afternoon in Australia’s bicentennial year.

That was the day that the Newcastle public took their first glimpse of their new team. Author Neil Jameson recalled in his book Our Town, Our Team: “With the mercury punching towards the century mark on the old Fahrenheit scale, there was every reason why the locals would have been thinking about anything other than football. This was a day for the beach”.

Yet 21,460 of them poured into the rectangular ground, the majority perching themselves on the grass of the terraced hills that surrounded the venue and perhaps 1,000 occupying seats in the old iron grandstand that sat atop the licensed club on the western side.

The Knights’ premiership debut was still a week away. On this day, the new club’s public credibility was at stake when the team lined up against Sydney premiership winners Manly in the Newcastle Herald’s grandly titled Challenge Cup. The match was a glorified trial, but the clash between Newcastle’s best and the Sydney premiers had become a regular event on the Hunter sporting calendar over a six-year period.

In past years it was the team representing the Newcastle district clubs that took on the Sydney champions but in 1988 it was the Hunter’s sparkling new outfit, the Newcastle Knights, who were premiering before the public.

Former international Allan McMahon, the man charged with the responsibility of guiding the Knights into their first season as coach, was under no illusions about the importance of the match. He organised a meeting with his team at a beachside park in Dudley at 8am on game day and reinforced what the game meant for the club. As Jameson explained, “this game was anything but a trial. It was a test match – a test of credibility for a bunch of no-name players desperate to prove themselves in front of the Newcastle public”.

Later that afternoon the International Sports Centre erupted when Kiwi Test forward Sam Stewart led his Knights onto the ground for the pre-game warm-up, and they erupted again when Stewart signalled his men into a pre-arranged formation in front of the crowd on the scoreboard hill, and again when they greeted their supporters in front of the grandstand.

It was at this point that the Manly team – which included internationals Michael O’Connor, Dale Shearer, Paul Vautin, Des Hasler, Phil Daley and Noel Cleal – realised they were in for much more than a routine trial.

In 80 minutes the Knights laid out their credentials before their fans and emerged with a stunning 24-12 victory against the defending premiers. The Knights’ defensive performance was relentless as forwards with limited reputations such as Tony Butterfield, David Boyd and Michael McKiernan repeatedly gang-tackled their big-name opponents. By halftime the Knights led 22-6 and supporters rose to their feet to acclaim their new heroes. It was a scene repeated at the end of the game.

This was the start of something mighty for Newcastle and whenever the Knights met the Sea Eagles in the years that followed they were reminded of the spirit that Allan McMahon’s unheralded team displayed on that hot February afternoon. The rivalry was fuelled in the 1990s by the epic confrontations between Paul “Chief” Harragon and Mark “Spud” Carroll and in 1997 when the Knights qualified for their first grand final, it was only fitting that Manly were their opponents.

That day in September 1997 holds a special place in the hearts of every Newcastle fan old enough to remember it, but those with longer memories will also think back fondly to a searing February afternoon in 1988 that not only kick-started the Knights but kick-started one of the game’s great rivalries.