Another year, another wooden spoon, but things are finally starting to look up again for Newcastle.
After just a single win in 2016 they claimed five victories this season, and led on several more occassions, but more importantly their long-term plan of blooding youngsters and improving the state of their salary cap is starting to come to fruition.
Between their current line-up and the incoming signings for next year the Knights have some quality young talent in key positions, bolstered by a handful of veterans with experience at winning clubs, and the most faithful fan base in the league is set to finally see some reward for their patience in the coming seasons.
Of course in terms of results the 2017 campaign was another one to forget, with a seven-game losing streak from Round 3 to Round 9 followed by eight straight losses starting in Round 11. A 40-0 thrashing at the hands of the Panthers was the worst of the lot, although an embarrassing 33-12 defeat to fellow strugglers the Wests Tigers in Newcastle was arguably the low point of the year.
But the team notched three confidence-boosting wins late in the campaign and have recruited well for 2018, with Knights supporters given some long-awaited hope for the future.
Where they excelled: "Excelled" is a stretch but there are some areas in which the Knights surpassed expectations. A focus on simple, safety-first footy for Nathan Brown's young side resulted in Newcastle making the fourth-fewest errors in the league, and their improved execution paid off with a three-game winning run against the Dragons, Warriors and Eels late in the season. They claimed earlier wins at home against the Titans and Raiders, and were surprisingly good in the first half of games – leading at half-time on a dozen occasions.
Where they struggled: The raw stats don't paint a pretty picture. The Knights finished with the worst defence and third-worst attack in the league, and their forward pack was often outmatched by their opponents with Newcastle finishing with the fewest run metres of any team in the NRL. Their biggest weakness for much of the season though was an inability to play for the full 80 minutes, frequently giving up a half-time advantage and letting potential wins slip through their fingers.
Missing in action: Only three players have played all available matches for the Knights this season, with a combination of injuries and Nathan Brown's rotation of the line-up meaning Newcastle rarely had a settled 17. Former NSW halfback Trent Hodkinson struggled with knee issues all year, spending the middle portion of the season in the lower grades and being unable to kick goals from long-range. Winger-turned-fullback Nathan Ross was sidelined with calf and back injuries, veteran signing Jamie Buhrer was restricted to just 16 matches after suffering a broken foot in April while fellow experienced campaigner Rory Kostjasyn didn't make a single appearance for his new club due to a throat issue. Jarrod Mullen is another player to have missed the entire season after testing positive to a banned substance at the start of the year.
Turning point: Newcastle's shock Round 23 win over Parramatta wasn't a turning point for their season but it could be one for the club's future. The victory – their first away from McDonald Jones Stadium in 2017 and their third win on the trot – came against a genuine top-eight side that had won their last six matches, with young playmaker Brock Lamb scoring one try and setting up two others. The victory brought some genuine optimism to Newcastle for the first time in a long time, and it didn't hurt that future Knights recruits Tautau Moga and Connor Watson produced strong performances on the same weekend either.
Hold your head high: Dane Gagai excelled both in the centres and at fullback in his final season at the club before departing for South Sydney, notching more than twice as many tackle breaks as any other Knight in 2017. Fellow speedster Nathan Ross cemented his place as one of the game's cult favourites and was the team's top try-scorer, lock Mitch Barnett led the club in tackles and offloads and looks a star of the future while 21-year-old prop Daniel Saifiti embraced his role as the leader of the pack. Five-eighth Lamb also thrived in the latter part of the season, showing maturity beyond his years to put a disastrous final few minutes against the Bulldogs in Round 18 behind him to star in each of their three wins from Round 21-23.
2018 crystal ball: The arrival of players like Moga, Watson, fullback Kalyn Ponga and experienced back-rower Aidan Guerra boosts Newcastle's available talent considerably, and the Knights still have salary cap room to spend. They won't be contenders instantly – even a run to the finals seems too high an expectation for next season – but they should certainly improve, and with a very young team that improvement should continue in the coming years. If Watson and Ponga in particular can live up to their potential – along with the Saifiti twins and 21-year-old skipper and one-time Kangaroo Sione Mata'utia – there are very good things in the future for Newcastle.
Conclusion: Compared to the horrors of the 2016 season Newcastle fans will look back at 2017 relatively fondly, thanks in large part to the team's three-game winning streak in the latter part of the campaign. Doubts about the quality of coach Nathan Brown and playmaker Brock Lamb have largely subsided and there is genuine excitement about the prospects of Daniel and Jacob Saifiti, Mitch Barnett and potential star signing Ponga. Gagai's exit to the Rabbitohs is a disappointment but the club has cleared a lot of salary cap space behind the scenes so should remain in a powerful recruiting position for the foreseeable future.
Home Record: 4-8
Away Record: 1-11
Longest Winning Streak: 3 games (Round 21-23)
Longest Losing Streak: 8 games (Round 11-Round 20)
Players Used: 31
Tries Scored: 72
Tries Conceded: 113