Knights' 2014 Season Review

Wayne Bennett tried his best to explain Newcastle's season to date back in Round 14 following his team's loss to reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters - at the time their 11th defeat and their seventh in a row.
 
"We've got one in jail, one in hospital and one sacked by the club... so they won't be back," Bennett said.

But really that was just the tip of the iceberg for Newcastle this year.

Nobody will ever quite understand the struggles the club went through when Alex McKinnon suffered his career-ending spinal injury in Round 3. With Russell Packer jailed and Zane Tetevano sacked, it was a tumultuous season from the get-go.

But the beginning of the end was Jarrod Mullen's hamstring injury at the Auckland Nines, which was followed by injuries to Darius Boyd, Kurt Gidley and Tyrone Roberts in Round 1. Throw in the ASADA troubles with Kade Snowden and Jeremy Smith later on in the year, Boyd admitted to a clinic for depression and ongoing ownership dramas and it was truly a year to forget.

However, finishing two wins from the top eight will leave fans wondering what could've been if the club had reversed losses to the Bulldogs (16-12 in Round 8), Sea Eagles (15-14 in Round 10) and Wests Tigers (23-20 in Round 13).

As Bennett reflected after their loss to the Titans in the RiseForAlex Round, he couldn't help but feel the same way.

"I realised some time ago that it was going to be a season of missed opportunities," Bennett said. "We have played all the top teams now virtually... and we matched them and led them and could have won; but it hasn't happened."

Things managed to get a little bit better for the Novocastrians late in the piece though.

With huge scorelines racked up against the Dragons and Eels in their final two games as well as unexpected wins against Melbourne, the Roosters and Warriors, Newcastle closed out the year with eight wins from their final 11 games, including five consecutive wins at Hunter Stadium.

It became a giant-killing run by season's end as they ultimately derailed the seasons of Parramatta and the Warriors while preventing the Storm a top-four berth.
 
Where They Excelled: For a team that travelled horribly for the majority of the season, their discipline was outstanding. Newcastle found themselves conceding fewer penalties than just the Raiders and the Dragons with 137 penalties throughout the year (5.7 per game – 1.2 penalties less than the competition average). Also, Newcastle had the second fewest errors competition-wide, with only the Storm pipping their 227 errors with five fewer.

While their kicking game suffered with chief kicker Mullen (who still kicked for 7360 metres) missing the first five games of the season, the Knights still produced the fourth most kicking metres (13,697 metres). They also produced the second-most tackle breaks with centre pairing Dane Gagai (106 tackle breaks – fifth most in competition) and Joey Leilua (92 – eighth most in the competition) producing the goods on more than one occasion.
 
Where They Struggled: Of course breaking tackles means absolutely nothing if you don't score points and this was exactly Newcastle's problem in 2014. Their 84 tries (sixth fewest) and 463 points (fifth fewest) tells the tale. Those numbers could have been a lot worse had Newcastle not rallied to score 15 tries in their last two games.
 
Also, the Knights struggled in defence with their 802 missed tackles seeing them finish as the third worst defenders in the competition, just ahead of the Titans and Tigers. Per game, they were missing 4.1 more tackles than the competition average.

Missing In Action: A constant stream of injuries didn't help Newcastle's cause with nine players missing a fair chunk of football. McKinnon aside, Newcastle would also play on without forwards Chris Houston, Adam Cuthbertson, Jeremy Smith (six games missed each) and Kade Snowden (seven games). Their injury crisis wasn't confined to the forwards, with Akuila Uate missing nine games with a nagging knee injury, Mullen and James McManus missing eight games each and Boyd missing 10 games through injury, Origin and personal issues.
 
Turning Point: A Good Friday it was not for Newcastle in their Round 7 clash with the Broncos. After seemingly turning the corner when dismantling the Raiders five days earlier, the Knights failed to back it up. While Brisbane had to make 12 try-saving tackles in the 32-6 win, the Knights were unable to do the same, with the Broncos scoring three tries either side of halftime. The loss also signalled the beginning of their mid-season, seven-game losing streak which all but ruined their chances of a finals berth even by Round 14.

Best Games: Their first win of the year, a 30-0 flogging of the Sharks in Round 4 in honour of McKinnon, was something special while their final two games also garnered unexpected albeit well-received 30-point wins against the Eels and Dragons. However nothing took the Hunter quite by storm like their two last-gasp victories against the Roosters in Round 20 and Melbourne in Round 22, with the latter triggered by a magical one-on-one strip and try by Travis Waddell and an after-the-bell four-pointer to Uate.

Worst Games: While Newcastle were able to win eight of their final 11 games, the three games between these remaining fixtures were just plain ugly. The 50-10 and 48-6 defeats at the hands of the Rabbitohs in Round 21 and the Broncos in Round 24 were hard for fans to take.
Throw in two losses to Penrith and a North Queensland belting within the first nine rounds, as well as their 22-6 loss to the Titans in RiseForAlex Round and the writing was on the wall. 

Hold Your Head High: Kudos to young trio Dane Gagai, Tyrone Roberts and back-rower Robbie Rochow. While injuries cruelled many of their teammates' seasons, the 23-year-olds and 24-year-old respectively managed to play every single game in the blue and red jumper – testament to the bright future that lies ahead for Newcastle. Inspirational back-rower Beau Scott also deserves plaudits, easily being the club's best in 2014.

With a deserving return to the Origin arena, Scott constantly threatened for the Knights and was rewarded a contract extension to see out his career at the club.

Conclusion: While this season may be remembered for all the wrong reasons, former and now incoming coach Rick Stone and new assistant coaches Danny Buderus and Craig Sandercock will attempt to avoid lightning striking twice in 2015. Newcastle will be boosted by the signings of Cowboys back-rower Tariq Sims to join brother Korbin, and Warriors utility Carlos Tuimavave, while they currently continue their attempts to re-sign mid-season recruit, former Raiders prop Sam Mataora.

Back-rower Scott summed up 2014 best when he told NRL.com: "Everyone knows what kind of season we have had on and off the park. It has been a tough one. If anything though it has brought us closer together as a playing group and you really can't achieve that by not going through the obstacles we have dealt with this year so as a club we have a bright future."
 
That said, they may need to rely on their minor premiership winning Holden Cup team for depth next season, with Cuthbertson, Michael Dobson, Josh Mantellato (all English Super League), Waddell (Broncos), Willie Mason, Matt Minto and Timana Tahu set to leave the club.

SEASON STATISTICS

Wins: 10
Losses: 14
Position: 12th
Home Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (= sixth)
Away Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (= worst)
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 15-18)
Longest Losing Streak: 7 (Rounds 7-14)
Players Used: 32
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 84 (sixth fewest)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 105 (fourth most)