Newcastle coach Nathan Brown wants the focus to be on the players, not him and South Sydney counterpart Wayne Bennett, when the Knights challenge the co-leaders at ANZ Stadium on Friday.
The Knights are chasing a sixth straight win while trying to end a nine-game losing streak to the Rabbitohs, who will be looking to bounce back from only their second loss of the season, but some of the pre-match attention will be on the respective coaches’ boxes.
The game will be the first their teams have played against each other since the Knights upset the Bennett-coached Broncos 15-10 in Newcastle in April last year, and Brown took a shot at the seven-time premiership-winning mentor that many considered was below the belt.
Brown and Bennett had different opinions as to how much rebuilding was required when Brown took the reins at the Knights in 2016. Bennett left Newcastle to return to Brisbane at the end of 2014 and was initially replaced by Rick Stone, who was sacked with six games left in the 2015 season.
“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 immediately after the game, but later contacted Bennett to apologise for any offence caused to his family.
Get Caught Up: Round 12
Brown’s barb was generally considered as a thinly veiled crack at Bennett over the breakdown of his 42-year marriage.
“I’ve certainly moved on. What’s happened has happened,” Brown said on Monday.
“I think what’s important, from my point of view, last time we sort of had a shot at each other, all you characters spoke about me and Wayne for a week and what we lost was there was a really good game of footy and we didn’t quite talk about the players.
“We’ve had a good five or six weeks and we’ve got some good players playing well, and South Sydney have had a good 10 weeks because they’ve got some good players playing well.
“I don’t think the fans are going to pay to go through the gate to look at me and Wayne. I think they’ll be paying to go and look at Cody Walker and Mitchell Pearce and that type of stuff, so that’s probably where I’d best leave it.”
Brown is more concerned about the resurgent Knights testing themselves against another title contender after their 38-12 thumping of the Roosters on May 24.
That ended a six-game losing streak to the defending premiers, and the Knights hope to end another long, lean stretch against a powerhouse opponent. Stretching back to their last win against Souths in the final round of 2011, Newcastle have lost nine in a row to the Rabbitohs.
Try of the week: Round 12
“Hopefully what we’re seeing is a different side at the Knights now. We’ve added a lot more experienced players, we’ve got some quality players in key positions, as Souths have, and our last two performances against the Dragons and Roosters were of reasonable quality,” Brown said.
“I would have thought that South Sydney would see us as a different proposition to what they probably faced in the last three years in my time. I can only talk about my time here.
“I would have thought that they would watch us play and think that we’ve certainly improved on last year again, and I suppose the proof will be in the playing.”
Brown said utility Connor Watson would replace injured hooker Danny Levi, who will be sidelined for six to eight weeks after ankle surgery last week, and Kurt Mann and Edrick Lee are options at fullback if Kalyn Ponga does not back up after Origin I.
Roberts trains & is set to face the Knights
Ponga and NSW prop David Klemmer will be assessed when they rejoin the Knights on Thursday, but Brown said the Knights were preparing as if they will not back up against the Rabbitohs. Captain Mitchell Pearce is making steady progress from a groin strain and is not expected to miss the game.
Though Levi is contracted until the end of 2020, Brown confirmed Newcastle’s interest in Sharks hooker Jayden Brailey and would not rule out the possibility of having both players on their roster.
“He (Brailey) is certainly a good player, and a player that we do have an interest in and we’ve spoken to, but it certainly doesn’t change Danny’s future at the Knights,” he said.
“The main thing is for Danny to play well, and that’s what he is doing. He’s on contract, and at the moment, Danny’s the only … full-time hooker on contract with the club, so it certainly is a part of our roster moving forward that we need to add a player, and Jayden Brailey is a player of interest.”