Written by John Davidson
Whisper it quietly – the horror in the Hunter is over.
Newcastle’s four rounds in 2020 show this a vastly different team to previous years, and their tag as the competition’s whipping boys is over. After four rounds the Knights are unbeaten, with three wins and a draw, sit second on the ladder and on Sunday they deservedly defeated last year’s grand finalists Canberra.
They are tough, talented and hard to beat. This is the best Newcastle side since Wayne Bennett’s team in 2013, that made it just one game from a grand final.
In the past seven years the Knights have not made the semi-finals once, cycled through four coaches and won three wooden spoons. They were easybeats, soft and undermanned.
They were frankly dreadful.
There looked to be light at the end of the tunnel in 2019 when Newcastle went on a winning streak and were poised for a finals appearance. But they folded like a cheap suit in the final third of the season, and that spelled the end of Nathan Brown’s four years at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Brown had rebuilt the squad and recruited some elite operators like Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, David Klemmer, Aidan Guerra and Tim Gladsby, all Origin representatives. But in the end the 46-year-old just couldn’t get Newcastle to perform consistently, he appeared too easy and friendly with the playing group.
Enter rookie Adam O’Brien. Schooled under Craig Bellamy, Brad Arthur and Trent Robinson, O’Brien has toughened the Knights up considerably. They are more committed and determined, and are showing courage previously found wanting. Standards have risen tremendously.
Newcastle have a good spine in Ponga, Pearce and Jayden Brailey. They have a pack with punch in Klemmer, Gladsby, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, the Saifiti brothers, Mitchell Barnett and Herman Ese’ese.
But perhaps most importantly, considering the history of Knights, is the core of local juniors they have coming through.
Woke up smiling 💪
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) June 7, 2020
Bradman Best, Phoenix Crossland, Pasami Saulo, Tex Hoy, Chris Randall and Brodie Jones are all quality young products from the Hunter region in the red and blue. Combined with the likes of Sione Mata’utia, Fitzgibbon, the Saifitis and Barnett, this presents an exciting local contingent that Newcastle can really be proud of.
Knights supporters, arguably more than any other side in the competition, love to see their own turn out for their club. Since 1988 the NRL outfit has been built on the blood, sweat and tears of local talent. Think Paul Harragon, the Johns brothers, the Gidley’s, Adam Muir, Darren Albert, Billy Peden, Timana Tahu, Mark Hughes, Josh Perry and Steve Simpson.
Whenever Newcastle have been successful, in 1997 and 2001, there have been locals at the heart of it. Driving standards, making the big plays, doing the hard stuff no one else wants to do it. Now the club has another clutch of crafty Hunter cattle at its centre again.
There’s still plenty of footy to be played this season. Lot’s of twists and turns to come. But for the Knights, a new dawn is emerging.
The pain of all those spoons is set to disappear. The signs are there that a bright new age is descending on Broadmeadow.