'Non-negotiables' behind Manly's rise and Newcastle's fall

At the start of the year, I expected Newcastle to finish above Manly at the end of the season.

Even a month ago, I had them as probably about even as two teams likely to play finals but unlikely to really trouble the top three sides.

But while Manly have just kept building and improving on the simple things that were working for them earlier in the year, the Knights have gone in the other direction.

A lot of that comes back to the one-percenters, or what I call non-negotiables.

Manly completely outclassed the Knights 30-6 on the weekend coming off an incredible one-point win over Melbourne.

They have won six of seven and are a genuine shot at a top-four finish. The Knights have lost five straight and are now a long shot to make the eight.

I wrote my column back in round 10 about how Manly were defying expectations by stripping back their game plan and keeping things simple.

They'd just won a few games with superstars Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic out injured and were sitting comfortably in the eight.

Des Hasler was getting players who most of us thought were reserve graders to perform well at NRL level by giving them clear instructions with a core focus on non-negotiables – things like always getting up off your line, not missing one-on-one tackles, cutting out lazy efforts, and pushing up in attack.

You don't have to be talented or experienced to make sure you're ticking off those sorts of things.

Manly are still nailing that as well as building and improving on what they were doing and adding more things into their game plan.

Now when I look at their shape they've gotten progressively more detailed because they know the non-negotiables and they're slowly adding to it.

Getting Tom and Daly back has obviously helped but look at the lesser names in the team.

At the start of the year, Brad Parker and Moses Suli would've struggled to make first grade at a lot of other clubs but right now they're one of the form centre pairings of the NRL.

Reuben Garrick is a rookie who's near the top of the NRL for points and tries scored this year. Curtis Sironen is playing the best football of his career and Manase Fainu is turning into one of the NRL's most dangerous hookers.

With a few superstar forwards laying the right platform everyone else is able to focus on their jobs and guys like Tom and Daly can add the flair.

I'm seeing almost the opposite at Newcastle. After a tough start to the year, they turned things around and won six in a row but their entire game plan centred around Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga.

They were getting results because their forwards were charging in and making an impact and those two guys were able to play off the front foot.

But over the past five losses, the forwards (other than David Klemmer) don't seem to be making the same impact.

They don't have a creative dummy half or another senior playmaker to take pressure off Pearce and even Ponga for all his brilliance isn't really an organising fullback at this stage of his career.

With the forwards getting dominated it's become really easy for opposition teams to number up on Pearce.

It doesn't look like the players have the same confidence in each other that we see in Manly and the other top teams and there's too many players not on the same page or trying to do something flashy without doing the hard work first.

When they were winning the Knights had those foundation pieces in place.

Where Manly have built on those foundations the Knights seem to have fallen away from them.

One-percenters should always come before individual brilliance and I think some Newcastle players have got that the wrong way round.

I don't know if the Knights can turn it around in time to make a run for the finals but for it to happen they almost need to go back to where they were in round six or seven before their winning run, strip it all back, simplify their game, get back to hard running and high intensity and really focus on those non-negotiables.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.