NINE wins, 11th on the ladder and 12 points adrift of the top eight. For most NRL clubs, those numbers would represent a season of mediocrity … but the Newcastle Knights aren’t most clubs.
The Knights kicked off their 2018 campaign as, statistically, one of the worst-performed outfits in rugby league history. Three-time wooden spooners – an ignominy endured by only a handful of clubs since rugby league’s foundation season in 1908.
Simply emerging from the cellar, and handing over the game’s most dreaded utensil to some other poor unfortunates, was going to rank as an achievement in its own right.
Yet before a tackle was made in 2018, there was a sense of inevitability that Newcastle simply had to improve.
After the nadir of 2016, when new coach Nathan Brown steered a hapless, inexperienced crew to one win and a draw from 24 games, Newcastle progressed to five wins a season later, with virtually the same group of players.
Two years into Brown’s tenure, he had finally cleared enough room under the salary cap to start seriously replenishing his roster.
The recruitment of Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra, Connor Watson, Tautau Moga, Herman Ese’ese, Slade Griffin, Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman provided a much-needed influx of experience, while teenage fullback Kalyn Ponga was rated a future star after only a handful of games for North Queensland.
The late arrival of NSW playmaker Pearce from the Roosters prompted some to predict the Knights could challenge for a berth in the finals.
After a sensational 19-18 win at home to Manly in the season-opener, followed by a 30-28 comeback triumph in Canberra, such forecasts did not seem outlandish.
By round eight, Newcastle had five wins to their name and were sitting pretty in sixth position.
But by this point, Pearce had suffered a pectoral injury that would sideline him for 11 games. Watson, Pearce’s scrumbase partner, was sidelined with a shoulder problem.
For the fourth time in his career, Moga ruptured his anterior-cruciate ligament and needed a season-ending knee reconstruction.
Griffin, just a week after making his Test debut for New Zealand, joined Moga in the casualty ward after suffering a devastating knee injury.
Newcastle simply lacked the depth to cope, and by mid-season a confidence-sapping slump of seven losses in eight games caused them to fade from play-off contention.
Pearce’s return in round 18 sparked back-to-back wins, but the last six games of the season delivered only one more success.
While most would have taken nine victories before the season kicked off, only two of those were against top-eight teams – Brisbane and Penrith.
Four of the wins came against Manly and Parramatta, who finished second-last and stoney motherless respectively.
Wins aside, Newcastle’s for-and-against statistics were a cause for concern.
The Knights scored the third-fewest points of any team (414) and had the second-worst defence (607 points against).
Somehow, despite their improved personnel, they managed to score less points than they did in 2017 (428).
There were, nonetheless, an array of highlights.
Ponga was dynamic from the moment he scored a spectacular early try against Manly in round one. He debuted for Queensland in Origin II, finished a narrow runner-up to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in the Dally M voting, and was widely hailed as a champion in the making.
Pearce was consistently outstanding and might well have won the Dally M, and represented NSW, if not for his surgery.
Back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon continued his rise, scoring nine tries, many of them running off Ponga’s short balls.
Ese’ese, Guerra, Mitchell Barnett and Daniel Saifiti all had strong seasons, while Sione Mata’utia bounced back from a series of worrying concussions to play in 23 games.
For winger Ken Sio, Newcastle’s top tryscorer with 12, and former Australian Schoolboys five-eighth Brock Lamb, however, there was disappointment.
Both were released at the end of the season, Sio to join Salford, and Lamb to link with the reigning premiers, Sydney Roosters.
For Knights fans, if 2018 was a breakthrough crusade, then bigger and better things are expected next season.
The acquisition of David Klemmer, Tim Glasby, James Gavet, Jesse Ramien, Edrick Lee, Kurt Mann and Hymel Hunt ensures Newcastle will have, to use Brown’s words, a “formidable squad”.
And 12 months after being taken over by Wests Leagues, the Knights have never been so financially secure, posting a profit for the first time since 2006.
Anything less than a finals berth next season will be regarded as a disappointment. After home crowds in 2018 averaged 18,974, Knights officials are aiming for record memberships and attendances.
"There's no excuses now," Wests Group/Knights CEO Phil Gardner said.
"It's about putting performances on the field.
"That's the mindset in the club now. It's not just about competing, or trying, we want to see results. Our fans have been very loyal and patient, and it's time to repay their faith.
“We owe them some wins."
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