Newcastle Knights 2017 Season in Review
Another year, same old result … but is the light at the end of the tunnel here for the Newcastle Knights? In NRL.com's club-by-club series delving into the 2017 season analytics, Paul Zalunardo and Alicia Newton look at how the Newcastle Knights fared on the field after finishing at the bottom of the ladder for a third consecutive year.
While it was another season to forget for the red and blue faithful on the scoreboard, the Knights gave their supporters reason for optimism with promising performances from pivot Brock Lamb, back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Fijian representative forward Daniel Saifiti leading from the front.
When you consider the Knights led on 12 of 24 occasions at half-time in 2017 – a big improvement to their three-game record in 2016 – they were in the hunt far more than in previous seasons.
Their best performances came towards the end of the year with three wins on the trot that included ending a 718-day drought on the road with their first victory away from home in 18 months, over a finals-bound Parramatta Eels side in Sydney.
"It was a wicked few weeks for the young boys," Knights winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall told NRL.com.
"Coming here there were a lot of boys who had played 50 games but only one or two in a row. Not many had ever won three. It was the best feeling. They worked so hard after getting so close, to see the elation was amazing."
With a high turnover of players departing at the end of 2017, and a host of new recruits headlined by Sydney Roosters trio Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra and Connor Watson coming on board, suddenly the Knights have the nucleus to lift themselves into finals contention in 2018.
The combination of a young spine alongside Pearce will create the most interest, with Knights hooker Danny Levi finishing his season on a high cementing a position in New Zealand's Test side and the additions of Watson and Kalyn Ponga set to take centre stage.
When you have just five wins for the season, the records are never going to be pretty. Four wins from 12 home matches was the best of it. An away record of 1-11 is something the club won't ever want to see again.
"There's a few ways to look at it. If you're looking at it by the fact we got another wooden spoon there's disappointment there," Knights forward Jamie Buhrer told NRL.com.
"It's certainly not what we set out to do from the start. Our win total growing from one to five was an improvement if you base it off the year before. To be able to put together a three-game winning streak and win close games at home were the biggest positives we took out of the season.
"It was a year we needed to show some growth and we did but obviously not as much as we would have liked. To wrap it up - a bit disappointing but exciting and full of optimism to come."
Fullback/winger Nathan Ross was the only Knights player to crack double figures for tries in 2017. His result of 10 tries from 20 matches was enough to edge out Lachlan Fitzgibbon (8) and Peter Mata'utia (7).
Net gains with kicks was one stat where the Knights fared well. Their average net gain was better than the NRL average. Not surprisingly, Brock Lamb was the leading individual.
"Rossy had a great season, he's one of the older players in the squad but is as energetic as anyone," Buhrer said.
"He brings enthusiasm to every training session and game he plays."
This was one stat where the Knights fared well. Their average net gain was better than the NRL average. Not surprisingly, Brock Lamb was the leading individual.
"We worked hard on our kicking this year and felt it went to another level. I tried to pride myself on that and it's something I like doing," Lamb told NRL.com.
"You want to take as many kicks in a game as you can and put them on the money. Over the past I've had help from Scotty Dureau, Mullo (Jarrod Mullen), plus now Hodko (Trent Hodkinson) and [kicking coach] Damien Hill helping us."
In further evidence that Lamb was never far from the action for the Knights, he also topped his side's averages in supports and decoys. His 2017 average was well clear of second-placed finisher Buhrer.
The fearless running style of Ross was reflected in him topping Newcastle's list of players who have averaged the most ground gained per run.
The Knights were well-behaved in the eyes of NRL referees, with Mitchell Barnett (22) the only player to concede more than 15 penalties during the season. They had only five players who conceded 10 or more penalties.
Newcastle finished mid-table in errors department as a team. As individuals, Lamb and Rabbitohs-bound centre Dane Gagai shared top spot.
Twenty-year-old prop Daniel Saifiti led the way. On 58 per cent of his carries during the season his runs required a group response. Now retired teammate Josh Starling joined him in the NRL's top 30.
"He was just about the best prop on the field for most games and to be that in a losing team obviously shows the calibre of player he is now and promises to be," Buhrer said of Daniel Saifiti.
None of the players the Knights used off the interchange bench produced a positive points differential in their time on the field but Sam Stone was the best of their bench mob.
"The growth shown from a lot of the younger players, it was a year in which they needed to step up and did," Buhrer said.
"Brock Lamb and Daniel Saifiti had ripper years. Mitch Barnett – there's a few others, they've taken steps and you can see success from that stand point.
"Jacob Saifiti had several games where he really stepped up. It's exciting to have those boys here and another year of growth and with Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman on board to push them along, it's exciting."
In a sign of the troubles the Knights found in pressuring opposition defences at various stages of the season, Ross was the leader in line breaks with 12 for the year. The NRL high in this field was 24.