As part of the NRL.com series reviewing each club's 2018 season, Peter Jolly looks at how the Newcastle Knights have developed under coach Nathan Brown.
Desperate to break their unwanted record of three straight wooden spoons, Newcastle's season started with plenty of promise.
Buoyed by the signings of halfback Mitchell Pearce and fullback Kalyn Ponga, they won five of their opening eight games to sit firmly inside the top eight.
But like any rebuilding team, consistency would come back to haunt them with good wins quickly overshadowed by poor performances.
This was in part due to injuries and inexperience – only two players from the first-grade squad played every game (Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Aidan Guerra), meaning the younger players had to step up – and against quality sides they made too many errors at key stages of matches.
Brown and Knights fans have plenty to be positive about in 2019 with Jesse Ramien, Tim Glasby and Edrick Lee heading north.
It was a breakout year for Ponga, who at just 20 years of age proved himself as one of the best fullbacks and playmakers in the Telstra Premiership. Despite late-season injuries, he is considered one of the favourites for to take out the Dally M Medal in just his first full season in first grade. He made his State of Origin debut for Queensland and earned respect from some of the game's biggest names when thrown into the middle, literally, playing in the unfamiliar position of lock for more than half the match and still putting in a superb performance.
Newcastle's season was defined by the long-term injury to Mitchell Pearce. The marquee signing suffered a serious pectoral injury against the Wests Tigers in round seven and spent the next 10 weeks on the sideline. In that time the Knights lost all their early-season momentum, winning just two matches.
While Brown tried to keep it positive throughout the season, focusing on the future and on-field matters, he was slightly distracted into a personal war of words with Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett after the pair disagreed over the condition the club was left in when Bennett departed in 2014.
"The reality is, when Wayne came to town, if he thought with his big head rather than his little head I wouldn't have had to rebuild the joint," Brown said. "It's a bit sad isn't it; the old fox has won seven premierships, he has coached for 30 years, and I haven't publicly bagged Wayne or anyone – then he comes and has a shot at me. I don't think he needs to bait like that."
Newcastle's best performance came when they recorded a 20-12 victory over the Panthers in round 23. It was their only win over a team that finished in the top eight, and with Ponga excelling at five-eighth, players and coaches afterwards said the game plan was executed almost perfectly.
The Knights had several heartbreaking defeats in 2018 and none more so than their round 20 loss to the Cowboys, when Gavin Cooper scored the winner with two minutes left. But the worst loss of the year would have to be the thrashing dished out by Cronulla in round 12. The Novocastrians looked flat in nearly every aspect of the game, going down 48-10.
The club has lured some talented players for next season, with Tim Glasby, Jesse Remien and Edrick Lee set to wear the red and blue. They remain on the lookout for more signings, most notably a dominant middle forward. Newcastle have lost Jack Cogger and Nick Meaney to the Bulldogs, while veteran forwards Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman have retired after one-season stints as Knights.
Next year is shaping as a chance to make major improvement on this season with new signings adding to the young talent's growth in experience. But it will again hinge on the team's fitness and whether their key players can spend time on the field together to form vital combinations. There also will be a shift in focus from management to Brown should the team go backwards. If they can gel further in 2019 with combinations, there is no reason why Newcastle cannot feature in the finals.