This article was published in the Newcastle Herald on November 5, 2007 in a supplement "20 years of the Knights"
FOR all intents and purposes, it was a meaningless trial match.
A chance for reigning premiers Manly-Warringah to practise some set moves, run in a few soft tries and stroke their egos a week before the season proper kicked off.
Or so they thought.
For the fledgling Newcastle Knights, the 1988 Herald Challenge Cup was much than just a trial.
It was their premiere performance on home turf the newly reconfigured International Sports Centre and a crowd of 21,460 pensive Novocastrians had congregated to run their eyes over the team that would represent their city in the world's toughest rugby league competition.
On paper, Newcastle's line-up hardly inspired any confidence. Their motley crew comprised a handful of occasional Sydney first-graders, a few no-names from the bush and a New Zealand Test forward, Sam Stewart, who was a logical choice as captain.
Against the star-studded Sea Eagles, whose team sheet featured names such as Paul Vautin, Cliff Lyons, Dale Shearer, Michael O'Connor, Noel Cleal and Des Hasler, the young Knights were expected to play the role of cannon fodder.
But if Manly were surprised at the size of the crowd when they ran out for kick-off, they must have felt downright nervous moments later when Newcastle's players, as a group, ran to the eastern hill and applauded their new fans.
The response was a rousing ovation that sent a clear message to the high-profile Silvertails our team, our turf, our game.
From the outset, the Knights bombarded Manly physically, racking up early points and establishing a healthy half-time lead. The final score read 24-12 in the home team's favour.
An era had been launched.
"Today was very important for us, not only for our football respectability," foundation Knights coach Allan McMahon said after the match.
"We had to have early credibility with the public, and I feel we went some way towards that."
The result surprised many, but it was not a complete shock to the late McMahon and his right-hand man, coaching co-ordinator Allan Bell.
With a limited budget, the Knights had been unable to attract established superstars. Instead they invested in potential.
"Every player we spoke to had a common denominator tomorrows," McMahon recalled. "We were not offering superannuation."
And they unearthed some rare gems rummaging around in the bargain basement.
Among the inaugural intake of pioneers were Tony Butterfield and Glenn Miller from Penrith, Marc Glanville from St George, Glenn Frendo and David Boyd from Canterbury, Jeff Doyle from the Brisbane competition, Steve Fulmer (Mudgee), Robbie McCormack (Muswellbrook) and home-grown youngsters Ashley Gordon and Paul Harragon, who started out in the under 21s.
Stewart became the public face of the Knights, while another Wellington-born Kiwi, utility back Tony Kemp, soon developed into a crowd favourite. In those days, professional rugby league was still semi-amateur. Players did weights in the morning, then worked during the day, before returning for twilight ball-work sessions.
Newcastle's first-grade team comprised plumbers, carpenters, car salesmen, labourers and barmen. They travelled to Sydney by bus on the morning of the game, and drank beer on the trip home.
But they were a united, happy bunch. The only player who showed any sign of an ego, Kiwi Test prop Adrian Shelford, a mid-season signing, was sacked after just a couple of games.
McMahon instilled in his troops a simple credo: "Be the bloke your teammates want to play with."
Realising early on that his team lacked genuine pace and class in the outside backs, McMahon opted for a forward-orientated game plan. Opposition teams soon came to realise that playing against the Knights in Newcastle was the rugby league equivalent of a demolition derby.
With Boyd, Butterfield and Stewart leading the way, crowds at the ISC revelled in every bone-jarring crash tackle.
A week after beating Manly, the Knights crashed to earth with a 28-4 loss to Parramatta in their first competition outing.
They bounced back with successive wins against Western Suburbs (away) and Balmain (home), both by 20-16.
Coming into the final round of the season, Newcastle needed a win against North Sydney who belted them 40-6 in round seven to avoid the wooden spoon.
With backs to the wall, the Knights delivered a memorable 38-6 triumph to finish 14th out of 16 teams, with five wins and a draw from 22 games.
Their home crowds averaged 20,526 almost double the league's average attendance and peaked at 30,220 when Wally Lewis's Brisbane Broncos visited.
A rugby league dynasty was up and running.