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Ladies Who League: Here's to the underdog

This week's story is dedicated to Willow Barbara Blue Ross who was born this week to delighted parents Nathan Ross and partner. Congratulations to Nathan and his entire family – I'm so pleased to welcome the newest Lady who Leagues into the world. 

Is there any narrative more adored in Australian sport than that of the underdog?

2016 was a year in which many people around the globe will remember as being divisive and tumultous. Characterised by some significant changes on the world stage, this resulted in uncertainty gripping many parts of the world, particularly when it came to politics, security and economics.

Amongst this uncertainty, there was sport - something which has the ability to bring people together in a way that almost nothing else can.

Many sports fans will remember 2016 fondly as 'the year of the underdog'. 

It was the year the impossible happened – Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League. The Shire could finally turn the porch lights off because the Cronulla Sharks were coming home with a trophy. The Western Bulldogs shattered a 62 year premiership drought when they beat the Sydney Swans in the AFL Grand Final. The 'Curse of the Billy Goat' was no longer, when the Chicago Cubs won the Major League Baseball World Series and Chloe Esposito won the hearts and minds of all Australians when she came from 45 seconds behind in the final discipline to become the first Australian to win gold in the Modern Pentathalon at the Rio Olympic Games.

Even though so many of us are wired to win and to win at all costs, we all have a soft spot for the underdog. I'm not sure whether that's because a win means more if it's not supposed to happen, or because in some circumstances we see the underdog putting in plenty of effort (often to no avail) or simply because we like to cheer for the 'little guy'.

I love an underdog and I know I'm not the only rugby league fan that feels that way. Fans of underdogs united last weekend, willing the Newcastle Knights to get across the line and then cheering when they beat the Canberra Raiders by 34-20 and recorded their second win of the season.

Recording more than one win in a season has been 18 months in the making for the Knights, with the team only scoring one victory in season 2016. Not only was it significant that the Knights won the game, but it was also their biggest win since Round 24 in 2015 and the second time that the Knights have managed to beat the Raiders in the last eight times that these teams have faced off.

And didn't the Knights faithful celebrate? 

For Novacastrians, rugby league is special. I would even go so far as to say that there is no place in Australia that loves its rugby league more. 

The Newcastle Knights are woven into the history of the town and stories are still shared about the rugby league greats which hail from Newcastle like Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus, Paul Harragon and Matt Gidley. These men will always be remembered as magnificent servants of the red and blue and will always be favourite sons of Newcastle. 

The dedication that Knights fans have to their club is a good example to all of us about what it means to be a fan, even when times are tough. While Parramatta Eels fans had it tough last year, Wests Tigers fans have been in the wars this year and it will undoubtedly be another supporter bases' turn next year, for Knights fans wins have been lacking for the last few years. While it's easy to say that it's the tough times that make success sweeter, that might be something we all tell ourselves to make the trials and tribulations of being a fan that bit easier.

I want to applaud Knights fans for their commitment to their team (particularly the 'Knights Nannas' who attend every home game and do their knitting whilst watching the footy). Despite the Knights' poor record over the last season and half, in 2016 the Knights had average home crowd numbers of over 14,000 and this year, after only five home games, their average crowd is already sitting at 15,484 – significantly higher than many of the other more successful clubs. 

From the Knights, last weekend was a performance with courage. Josh Starling played on despite having a broken arm, Lachlan Fitzgibbon suffered meniscus damage in his knee and Jacob Saifiti was taken to hospital for scans following a nasty hit to his neck. 

But there were also plenty of positives.

It was the best performance that halves Brock Lamb and Jaelen Feeney have had this year. In particular, I wanted to mention Jaelen's deft pass which helped Joe Wardle 'wardle' over to score a try. Nathan Ross is one of my favourite players in the NRL, so I always am so pleased to see him score a try. Daniel Saifiti continues to go from strength to strength and ended the game with 21 carries for 185 metres, despite seeing his brother horribly injured earlier in the game. Once Peter Mata'utia carried three defenders over the line to score a try, the game was officially out of reach for the Raiders. 

I think many of us also forget just how young this Knights team is and how much they have improved over the last season and a half, simply due to the fact that they have had the opportunity to play more football together. 

This is a team that has already improved significantly this year and will continue to improve. With gun Cowboys fullback Kayln Ponga coming next year and undoubtedly a couple more key signings still to be revealed, I'm confident the Knights are on the right track.

I'm not a particularly good tipster, but this weekend I have tipped the Knights to go back-to-back for the first time sinces Rounds 25 and 26 in 2015 when they play the out-of-form Penrith Panthers on Sunday afternoon.

To date, the Panthers have been one of the most disappointing teams in the competition and despite a win last weekend over the New Zealand Warriors, they managed to score 28 unanswered points against a team that had switched off. 

If the Panthers are to win this game, they need to play the full 80 minutes like they played the second-half against the Warriors. I'm looking for plenty of second-phase play and a confidence to throw the ball around that has been lacking in their first halves to date this year.

But don't underestimate the Knights. This is a team high on confidence who have proven that while they may not be able to beat the toughest teams in the comp, that they can certainly go toe-to-toe with them.

And don't their supporters absolutely deserve at least one more win in 2017? I know that the Knights Nannas would be delighted.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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