IT was a bit more than two years ago now, very early in Nathan Brown’s tenure, when I bumped into one of the Newcastle Knights’ 1988 “Originals” at the shopping centre formerly known as Garden City.
I hadn’t seen him for years and, after the usual pleasantries, we got down to the business of discussing the footy.
Brown’s young Knights, I told him, reminded me of Allan McMahon’s foundation tyros – inexperienced and with the odds stacked against them almost every week.
“Yeah,” he replied. “But at least we could defend.”
Indeed they could. Back in 1988, McMahon’s philosophy was that defence was the best form of attack.
During those inaugural seasons, the Knights approached each opponent with a demolition-derby mindset. They knew most teams had an edge in pace and class and that the best way to nullify that was with in-your-face aggression.
It was, to be fair, a vastly different game in those days. It was the era of the five-metre rule, before the interchange, when fields were often reduced to quagmires by mid-winter rain, and sodden leather balls challenged the safest of hands.
Concepts such as 40-20 kicks and seven-tackle sets, or time-outs for video-refereeing decisions, were decades away. Players were nowhere near as powerful, explosive or athletic, because they were not full-time athletes.
In other words, it was far easier to transform a footy game into trench warfare.
These days teams routinely roll from their own goal-line to the other end of the field in a single set.
Heavyweight forwards like James Graham, Jake Trbojevic and Matthew Lodge can play like halfbacks, rather than battering rams, as the ball torpedoes from sideline to sideline.
Hence, defending in 2018 is a world removed from the brutal grind of 30 years earlier.
What has not changed, in all that time, is the best defensive teams are usually there or thereabouts at the business end of the season.
Newcastle’s own history reflects that.
In their inaugural season, they finished 14th on the competition ladder but were the 12th-best defensive team. A year later, they ran seventh but only three teams had better defensive records.
In 1992, when they reached the finals for the first time, the Knights conceded the second-fewest points in the competition.
In 1997, en route to winning their first grand final, Newcastle were the ARL’s most miserly defensive outfit during the preliminary rounds.
In 2001, when they won their second premiership, the Knights were something of an anomaly. They were ranked ninth for their defence, but were second in terms of points scored.
Beating Parramatta 30-24 in the grand final probably summed up their season. They could leak points, but they had so many attacking threats they backed themselves to outscore any opponents.
In the 17 years since then, the best the Knights have managed defensively was to twice concede the fifth-fewest points, in 2002 and 2013. In both seasons they made more than one appearance in the finals.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the Knights find themselves in a familiar position.
For the third consecutive year, they are statistically the NRL’s worst defensive team.
When Brown assumed the reins in 2016, Newcastle were the incumbent wooden spooners and only Gold Coast had conceded more points the previous season.
In his first year, they won only won game and suffered some monumental hidings. The 800 points they conceded (average 33.3 per game) was the most by any team since Wests Magpies in 1999.
Last year they reduced that to 648 (average 27). This season they have improved slightly again (533 at 25.3).
Nonetheless, despite occupying a reasonably respectable 11th rung on the ladder, they still are apparently the easiest team in the NRL to score points against.
Much has been made of injuries to key personnel, in particular the fact that Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson have played only a handful of games together. That perhaps explains why Newcastle, surprisingly, are scoring slightly fewer points on average than last year (17.8 per game down to 17.5).
But does the absence of brilliant playmakers really have much bearing on the team’s ability to keep their tryline intact?
The bottom line is that injuries are an occupational hazard, and the teams with ingrained mental toughness and resilience are more likely to cope.
These things take time, you might argue.
Well, the Wests Tigers are an example of what can be achieved.
Last year the Tigers were the fourth-worst defensive team in the NRL, conceding 23.7 points per game.
This year they are the third-best team, and their average “against” of 17.5 is an improvement of more than a converted try each game.
For the Knights, their last three games of 2018 shape as an intriguing challenge.
They play Penrith and Cronulla away, then St George Illawarra at home … all of whom appear finals-bound.
There is a chance to finish the season on a high note and reaffirm that everything is heading in an upward trajectory.
They still have plenty to play for, and a little bit of that 1988-style mentality might go a long way.
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