Ladder position: 12th
Competition points: 10
Points scored: 385
Points conceded: 699
After what was a fairytale finish to 2015, the Knights were well and truly brought down to earth this season, becoming the first side since the XXX in XXXX to follow up a NSWRL premiership with the wooden spoon. Managing just two victories, the team continued what has been a disappointing year for all grades in the Hunter and there are few positives to draw from it, but still managed to turn up with intent to win every game they played.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we expected too much from the Knights this year; they won the competition from seventh position in 2015 and could be said to have overachieved. With a first grade wooden spoon coming last year as well, they also became the first side in more than 60 years to achieve the rare feat – and such a discrepancy between each division is always going to negatively affect performances at some point. While this season saw the movement of a number of the Grand Final winners – Clint Newton, Kerrod Holland and Honeti Tuha to name a few – the NRL side’s struggles also forced a significant wave of talent out of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW, with 11 players handed their first grade debut. These factors combine for the club-wide disaster that fans have had to endure in 2016, but the only way is up for next year.
The Knights, to their credit, have finished the season stronger than many expected and while the past month has featured three narrow and heartbreaking losses, they did manage one big win against the 11th-placed Sea Eagles. With an incredible 62-26 scoreline, Newcastle’s attack clicked into gear with Jaelen Feeney scoring three and Will Pearsall scoring two tries. It is easy to point out the poor performances of the Sea Eagles this season, but while both sides were out of finals contention it was the Knights who turned up with more intent. The Round 23 win reflects well on coach Matt Lantry and his players.
With just one win to their name from the opening nine games, the dream of back-to-back premierships was already beginning to seem unrealistic. The Knights needed an instant turnaround to make a charge for the finals from Round 10 – something that the Bulldogs managed on the same weekend. It is that urgency for a win that makes Newcastle’s performance against Illawarra all the more disappointing. With the luxury of playing the Cutters in their ‘home’ fixture at Hunter Sports Stadium, the Knights were comprehensively beaten 48 points to four – their heaviest defeat of the year. It was a poor effort at a crucial time.
In a season that started so poorly and continued in a downward spiral, it is difficult to outline a single ‘turning point’ for the Knights – but if one had to be defined, it may have happened as early as Round 3. Matt Lantry’s men responded poorly to the task of defeating Mounties, who were already firming as one of the form teams, losing 42-18 to the eventual Minor Premiers. The Knights were immediately beginning to show signs that they could not keep up as they did last year.
On a positive note, another turning point for Newcastle was the mid-season signings of Mitch Barnett, Brendan Elliott and Tom Hughes. While Barnett and Elliott have slotted straight into first grade positions, this has helped stabilised the player stocks in all grades, while Tom Hughes has been impressive in a range of positions. The return of Krys Freeman from injury, too, was a positive that came late in the season.
With so much player movement throughout the year, the most consistent players have been invaluable for the Knights. Bryce Donovan, who played both on the wing and at fullback, deserves credit in this regard, while Tom Hughes, as mentioned, was solid since signing with the Knights. Will Pearsall did enough to earn an NRL call-up on three occasions and Jaelen Feeney, while far quieter than in 2015, responded well to being demoted earlier in the season.
Destined for the NRL:
At the end of a long season, there may be a shining light – Dylan Phythian made his NRL debut in Round 25 against the Rabbitohs, scoring a try and providing some hope for the future. The 21-year-old, who has played at fullback and in the halves this year, made his debut at hooker and appeared to handle it well. He could be destined for a long career, along with fellow 2016 debutants Pearsall, Brock Lamb, Chris Adams, Josh King, Jack Cogger and Corey Denniss.
While rebuilding the Newcastle club will seem like an impossible task to many, they are not necessarily too far off being competitive – at least in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW. It starts with the basics, which of course means an improved defence for the side that is equal with Manly as the worst defensive side in the competition. Attitude doesn’t appear to be a major problem and with a very young, ever-changing side, many of the issues the Knights faced this year could slowly fade away next year.
Witness history this September at the 2016 NSWRL Grand Final Day. On Sunday, 25 September the Intrust Super Premiership NSW decider, along with the Ron Massey Cup and Sydney Shield Grand Finals, take place at Pirtek Stadium, with tickets just $10 for adults and kids under 12 free. Click here to secure your seat.