Home Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (11th)
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses (=7th)
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 15-17 and 20-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 8-11 and 23-25)
Players Used: 33
Player of the Year: Kurt Gidley
Tries Scored: (After 26 rounds) 80 – 9th most
Tries Conceded: (After 26 rounds) 81 – 9th most
All things considered, Newcastle can head into the off-season knowing that they didn’t let themselves down. Embroiled in a multi-way battle to sneak into the top eight heading into the final rounds, a 40-24 win over South Sydney in their final regular season game was enough for them to steal eighth spot and make it two finals appearances in the three years under coach Rick Stone. Yet despite a late fightback in their semi-final against Melbourne, they never seriously threatened to progress any further and were certainly never mentioned as a genuine premiership contender. In the end, it’s why the club is undergoing such drastic change.
In hindsight, it’s quite possible that 2011 is looked back on as the year that the Newcastle Knights took a giant step forward. The mid-season buy-out of the club by mining magnate and passionate Knights fan Nathan Tinkler ensured that their years of financial struggle are finally behind them, while the news that supercoach Wayne Bennett will take over next season was met with near hysteria. Bennett’s signature has certainly sent a message that mediocrity won’t be tolerated under Tinkler’s watch.
In many ways it’s a credit to Stone and the playing group that they were able to put such dramatic change behind them to reach the finals at all. After all, Bennett’s arrival means that Stone has been displaced from his head coaching job (although he has agreed to stay as Bennett’s assistant).
But while Stone handled the whole situation with aplomb, the fact remains that eighth spot was just about as high as Newcastle could have hoped for and there were no real signs that this current group would otherwise have challenged the Melbournes and Manlys of this world in the foreseeable future.
At their best the Knights are a considerable attacking outfit – as shown by big wins over Penrith and North Queensland in the opening rounds that had fans dreaming of a return to the big time.
Yet they often struggled to maintain consistency and despite their fast start to the year they spent the final 21 weeks of the season yo-yoing between sixth and ninth.
As pleasing as a finals appearance must have been in 2011, true satisfaction remains some way off.
Where They Excelled: A scintillating attacking side on their day, Newcastle’s much-vaunted right-side attack was key to their success in 2011, with veteran centre Adam MacDougall and excitement machine Akuila Uate providing the side’s main attacking threat. In fact, their 41 tries on the right ranked second in the NRL behind only Brisbane. By comparison, the Knights crossed just 23 times on the left and 16 up the middle. Although vastly different in both experience and playing style, MacDougall and Uate struck up a thrilling partnership over the past few years, with Uate finishing 2011 third on the NRL top try scorers’ list with 19. Notably, the Knights ranked first in the NRL for line-breaks (4.9 per game) and tackle-breaks (40.6) and second for average metres gained with 1400 per game.
Where They Struggled: The Knights were woeful at preventing second-phase play in defence, conceding an NRL-high 322 offloads in 2011. They were also among the more susceptible sides around the rucks, conceding eight tries from dummy-half (only South Sydney performed worse in that area) and 14 line-breaks (worst in the NRL) – those figures confirming an air of laziness in and around the tackle at times during the season.
Missing In Action: Although the emergence of promising young playmaker Ryan Stig provided some much-needed stability in the halves during the back half of 2011, the Knights didn’t get off lightly on the injury front. In fact, the 33 players they used was the most by any side in the NRL, with almost a dozen regulars featuring in barely half the season. Notable in their absence was dangerous back-rower Zeb Taia, who played just five games, Mark Taufua (10 games), Neville Costigan (15), Cameron Ciraldo (14), Dan Tolar (14), Isaac De Gois (17) and Wes Naiqama (17).
Turning Point: A gritty 16-12 win over Penrith in Round 15 in a match that, for the most part, failed to reach any great heights appeared to give Newcastle a confidence boost that saw them go on a run of six wins from eight games. Aside from kick-starting their best run of the season (which ultimately saw them reach the finals), the Penrith game also saw the debut of five-eighth Ryan Stig who played a huge role in the win. Stig played every game from that moment onwards.
Best Games: Newcastle sent a warning to their premiership rivals with a stunning 42-8 thrashing of Penrith away from home in Round 1. Such lopsided contests so early in the season are rare but the Knights shot of the blocks in 2011, scoring seven tries to one in a scintillating performance. Halfback Jarrod Mullen was the maestro – scoring a try and setting up three others – with centre Junior Sa’u scoring a double. Newcastle led 22-2 at half-time and kept the foot on the throttle in the second half.
Worst Games: The Knights didn’t officially qualify for the finals until their final round win over South Sydney but they should have sealed the deal a week earlier. Leading a struggling Canterbury side 22-6 at half-time, Newcastle was cruising but fell asleep after the break to go down 32-22. Incredibly, it wasn’t until the 55th minute that the Bulldogs crossed in the second half to close the gap to 10 but from there it was a rout with Josh Reynolds scoring again in the next set and Ben Barba crossing for a double.
The loss prompted Stone to tell the media afterwards that: “If you defend like that and you have that sort of intent or lack of, you might as well not be in the finals.
“We're embarrassed, we're disappointed... there were some things that went on today that are not acceptable and I apologise to the fans and the members and everyone involved in our club because it's not good enough.”
Hold Your Head High: Flying winger Akuila Uate again provided the Newcastle faithful with a highlight reel full of magic moments with 19 more tries to his name in 2011. A lethal presence on the right wing, his tally included a hat-trick against the Gold Coast in Round 21 and four tries against South Sydney in Round 26.
Fullback Wes Naiqama deserves special mention for his performances before a torn tricep ended his season early. Naiqama scored 10 tries and averaged 120 metres from 17 appearances.
Coach Rick Stone says: “It was a pretty good year. I suppose top eight is a pass mark but considering the obstacles that were placed in our way this year I think we’ve handled it pretty well. The staff have handled it pretty well. I think there were a few disturbances there as a playing group. There was a tremendous amount of support and leadership from our captain which has been really nice to have. As a club we’re building in the right direction. We’ve got a few things happening at our club at the moment.”
Conclusion: A finals berth was a deserved reward for a Knights side that endured a season full of off-field distractions and a coach that sacrificed his own job for the future of the club he loves. Nevertheless, for a side with as many attacking weapons as Newcastle boasts there remains a feeling that his squad has never quite lived up to its on-field potential.
The Knights have shown in the past that on their day they can pile on the points yet their weakness is a lack of ability to do it regularly. At least they can take some positives out of their top-eight finish as they head into a bright new future under Nathan Tinkler and Wayne Bennett.