In the end the fairytale wasn’t to be, yet Newcastle’s thrilling run through the NRL finals proved one of the feel-good stories of the 2013 season. Having finished the regular season in seventh on the Telstra Premiership ladder, they comfortably accounted for Canterbury in the opening week of the finals then caused a huge boilover to eliminate premiers Melbourne in Week 2.
No-one had seriously expected the Knights to challenge for the title when the season first kicked off but with just four sides remaining the Hunter was suddenly dreaming of a first premiership win since their memorable victory over Parramatta in the 2001 grand final.
For some, it might have felt like destiny. Having won five premierships with Brisbane and another with St George Illawarra in 2010, was Wayne Bennett about to become the first man ever to coach three different sides to a title? And could veteran Danny Buderus – the last man standing from that 2001 side – farewell the game on the ultimate high?
Alas not. After taking it to minor premiers Sydney Roosters for the first 20 minutes of their Preliminary Final, the loss of Buderus to a serious concussion following an unfortunate collision with Roosters prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves seemed to rattle the Novocastrians and they fell in a heap to exit with a 40-14 loss.
But for all the disappointment that inevitably comes when a side is eliminated from the premiership race, the fact remains most Knights fans would have gladly accepted a final-four finish if you had offered it to them six months ago.
Bennett and his troops made significant strides in 2013 – particularly out wide where a number of talented youngsters cemented their spots in the starting side.
None were better than halfback Tyrone Roberts. The talented playmaker produced some stunning performances at times throughout the year, but more importantly he eased the pressure significantly on five-eighth Jarrod Mullen. The result was arguably Mullen’s finest season to date, with the 26-year-old a leading contender for the Dally M medal right down to the final rounds.
Newcastle’s great strength, however, was their pack where the experience of hard men Willie Mason, Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott as well as veteran hookers Buderus and Craig Gower – who joined the club mid-season – helped them through some tricky spots at various times of the year.
The big question for Newcastle is, where to from here? There will be no Buderus next year and Gower’s future remains clouded following neck surgery late in the season, so they will be missing some of that experience. Then again, there is every chance 2013 will provide a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Certainly that’s the way they should be looking at it. While they might consider last weekend to be an opportunity lost, the fact that they got so far can only be a positive moving forward.
Where They Excelled: Newcastle had no trouble making big metres in 2013 – topping the NRL for total metres gained with 31,508 at an average 1,313 per game. However, it was the work ethic of their backline that was most responsible for that stat. Incredibly, their entire three-quarter line as well as fullback Darius Boyd averaged more than 100 metres per game. Boyd averaged 130 metres with Akuila Uate adding 143, James McManus 111, Dane Gagai 129, Joseph Leilua 115 and the departing Kevin Naiqama 132.
Newcastle’s kicking game was also strong with a competition-best 586 metres per game gained via the boot. Mullen kicked the ball 426 times in 2013 – 109 times more than next-best Luke Walsh – for a personal gain of 13,625 metres. He was the only player in the NRL to kick for more than 10,000 metres.
Where They Struggled: Second-phase play wasn’t a big part of the Knights’ game plan. In fact, they offloaded less than any other side in 2013 with just 132 in 24 games.
Ultimately, however, it was the side’s lack of consistency coach Wayne Bennett would have been frustrated with. Aside from their late run through the finals, the Knights only won more than two games in a row once and it wasn’t until their 26-18 win over Brisbane in Round 25 that their finals berth was finally secure.
Missing In Action: Newcastle certainly faced their fair share of challenges in 2013. Their season finished with a number of key players on the sideline – none more telling than Kade Snowden who was suspended for seven weeks after his shoulder charge broke the jaw of North Queensland’s Ray Thompson in Round 24. Winger James McManus also missed the loss to the Roosters with an ankle injury, as did Craig Gower following neck surgery. Knights captain Kurt Gidley again missed a large chunk of the season, playing just 14 games due to separate injuries to both ankles. Beau Scott (16 games) and Timana Tahu (five games) also missed large periods.
Turning Point: It came late and took everyone by surprise. With two weeks remaining until the finals, the Knights were one of seven sides fighting it out for the last two finals spots. But a 26-18 win over Brisbane gave them the inside running and when they belted Parramatta 54-6 a week later they had secured seventh spot and were starting to build momentum at the right time of year.
The first week of the finals then saw them comfortably dispose of Canterbury before a brilliant effort to upset Melbourne suddenly turned a passable season into a very, very good one.
Best Games: It’s hard to go past their 18-16 win over Melbourne at AAMI Park in Week 2 of the finals. Huge underdogs, the Knights took the game physically to the premiers – jumping out to a 12-4 halftime lead and an 18-4 lead shortly afterwards before holding on against a late Storm surge. A 44-8 thrashing of the Bulldogs in Round 10 was also impressive. Against the 2012 grand finalists, Newcastle’s backline produced their finest performance of the season to pile on seven tries with Jarrod Mullen, Kurt Gidley and Darius Boyd all brilliant out wide.
Worst Games: An embarrassing 44-14 loss to the Raiders at Canberra Stadium in Round 9 was easily the Knights’ worst performance of the year. They simply didn’t turn up with the intensity needed to compete at NRL level and fell apart against a side that wouldn’t figure in finals calculations.
Newcastle also lost both games against lowly St George Illawarra this season. They included an insipid 14-8 loss at Hunter Stadium in Round 13 in a clash where Newcastle’s big names went missing in action.
Hold Your Head High: Although he missed the run through the finals with suspension, prop Kade Snowden was a standout performer for much of the year with an average 138 metres per game – easily the most of any Knights forward.
Halves Tyrone Roberts and Jarrod Mullen also impressed with coach Wayne Bennett finally settling on a regular half and five-eighth combination.
Winger James McManus was sorely missed during the finals. He outshone fellow winger Akuila Uate with 78 tackle-breaks and a team-high 19 tries including four in Newcastle’s 46-16 win over the Gold Coast in Round 16.
Coach Wayne Bennett says: “The last month was certainly an eye-opener for me with the way [the fans] all came together and got behind us. I’ve played a lot of games at [Allianz Stadium] and the atmosphere there on Saturday night was as good as I’ve ever heard it. I’ve coached Grand Finals there and it was even as good as any of those. It was just great to see all the colours there and the support that everyone is giving them. I think we’ve given them back a football team that are proud of the game and that’s what we want to maintain now going forward.
“The one great disappointment on Saturday night was that the players felt they didn’t play their best and let everybody down that went to the ground. But the players felt that and that’s good for the future because you want your players to buy into the fact that it’s not just about them – it’s also about the people that support the game.
“From our point of view the season was pretty good. Obviously we would have liked to have gone another game but that didn’t happen. We were outplayed on the night but there were a lot of things achieved. There were some results we were looking for and hopefully what we achieved this year will put us in good stead for next year.
“We made some progress. It was a battle for us this year with injuries to key players but we managed to keep fighting and that’s how we finished our season. We played with a lot of courage on Saturday night and toughed it out. We were certainly outplayed by the Roosters but didn’t give up and that epitomised what we’ve done here the past 12 months.”
Conclusion: Sometimes it can be difficult to separate what happens in the finals from the results of the season proper. Newcastle’s seventh-place finish after 26 rounds was probably a fair indication of where they were at in 2013 and they will need to find much greater consistency – and a bit more spark in attack – if they are to become a genuine title contender in 2014.
However, good sides know how to time their runs and after charging into the preliminary final on the back of four consecutive wins there is plenty for the club to look forward to next season. We will watch their progress with interest.
Position: 7th (4th after finals)
Home Record: 7 wins, 4 losses, 1 draw (6th)
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses (=7th)
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Round 25 - Finals Week 2)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Rounds 11-14)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 77 (=6th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 70 (6th)