MANLY-WARRINGAH'S players were entitled to be in a relaxed and confident mood as they boarded the team bus at Brookvale Oval.
The gallons of alcohol consumed during their premiership celebrations four months earlier had long since been expended as sweat during pre-season training. They were in peak condition and, other than the departure of crash-tackling back-rower Ronny "Rambo" Gibbs to the new Gold Coast franchise and the return of prop Kevin Ward to his native England, basically had their full grand final squad available for what would be their last trial game before the season proper kicked off. Almost every seat was occupied by a player with Test or State of Origin experience.
At the helm was Bob Fulton, who won back-to-back premierships with Manly as a player. Now he wanted to do so as a coach. Ahead of them lay a three-hour drive up the Pacific Highway to Newcastle. It was a long way to go for a practice run, but at least the champions would have a chance to work on a few set moves and hone their match fitness before the season-opener. Or so they thought.
Up in Newcastle, Manly's opposition assembled at Dudley Oval for an 8am ball-work session - a dress rehearsal. It was already feeling like one of those late-February scorchers.
In complete contrast to the Sea Eagles, Allan McMahon's young troops had every reason to be nervous. In their opening trial, they had been thrashed 32-0 by Cronulla. They followed that with a morale-boosting 34-4 win against Illawarra at Toronto's Lyall Peacock Oval, but Manly would be a dramatic rise in class.
McMahon, however, exuded confidence. He reminded his men that they had beaten the Sea Eagles 24-16 in the pre-season Sevens tournament. He warned them not to take their eyes off Manly's crafty ball-player. "Whichever side of the ruck Lyons stands, that's where the ball goes," he predicted. And he insisted Manly's players were only human, made of flesh and blood, and would bruise if they were hit hard enough. "Don't worry about their reputations," he told his players. "Let's get up in their faces, tackle hard and give them no room to move, and see how they like it." McMahon recognised that aggression and youthful enthusiasm were about the only cards he had up his sleeve.
Experienced players were few and far between. The only seasoned campaigner Newcastle had signed, Canberra playmaker Ivan Henjak, reneged on his two-year contract and was forced to pay the Knights a reported $25,000 in compensation after they filed a Supreme Court injunction to prevent him from continuing to play for the Raider
s. Of the names on Newcastle's team sheet, only seven - fullback Glenn Frendo (Canterbury), winger Brian Quinton (St George), centres Glenn Miller (Penrith) and Gavin Hanrahan (Balmain), and forwards David Boyd (Canterbury), Tony Townsend (St George) and Tony Butterfield (Penrith) - had previously featured on a first-grade match program, although skipper Sam Stewart had played in five Tests for New Zealand. Lakes United's premiership-winning halfback Steve Walters (the 1987 NSW Country player of the year) was well known to followers of the Newcastle competition, as was his former Seagulls teammate, back-rower Michael McKiernan, and Cessnock winger Rod Whitaker. But the likes of five-eighth Rob Tew (Redcliffe), prop Richard Clarke (St George) and bench players Tea Ropati and George Mann (both Auckland) and Scott Carter (Denman) were unknown quantities.
On paper, it appeared a complete and utter mismatch. Fortunately for McMahon's motley crew, sporting contests don't take place on paper. When Manly's players arrived at Newcastle's International Sports Centre, a few surprises awaited them. First and foremost, the temperature was hovering in the mid-30s. The type of weather likely to test both stamina and commitment. Secondly, Newcastle had already won the under-21s by 41-10 and were on their way to a 7-6 victory in reserve grade, which perhaps raised a few Manly eyebrows. Most notably, the joint seemed jam-packed.
An attendance of 21,460 was later announced. Didn't the locals know it was only a trial game? Wouldn't they rather be at the beach? If there was any query about how the home-town spectators would receive these no-names wearing generic blue-and-red jerseys emblazoned with a Newcastle Herald logo, it was answered a minute before kick-off.
Skipper Stewart and his troops jogged from sideline to sideline and applauded the crowd, who immediately erupted. It was a moment that made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Perhaps now Manly's champions realised this would be no mere trial game. Eighty minutes later, Stewart and his men were again saluting the fans, this time holding aloft the Herald Challenge Cup, after a bruising, brutal 24-12 victory.
"Today's match was a trial, a very important trial ... not only for our football respectability," coach McMahon said after the match. "We had to have early credibility with the public, and I feel we went some way towards that."
He then put the win in perspective. "This team will get better," he said. "There is always room for improvement. There is a long long way to go ... Parramatta is our first competition opponent and they will be a totally different ball game." Manly mentor Fulton admitted ruefully: "There has been a touch of complacency in the team in the last couple of weeks. Our players undoubtedly underestimated the opposition."
Parramatta would not make the same mistake six days later, when champions Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe combined to deny Newcastle a fairytale entry into the Winfield Cup. The Eels ran in four tries, and Ella landed six goals, to win 28-4. The honour of scoring the Knights' first-ever points went to five-eighth Rob Tew, who toe-poked two penalty goals.
For McMahon's young tyros, it was a timely reality check. "It was a good lesson for us," prop Tony Butterfield said. "It'll bring us back to earth." Coach McMahon added: "We've got to come to grips with the speed of the game, especially in defence. And we have to cut down on errors and penalties. Our mistake rate was too high."
But the Knights were first-round winners on one score. The 26,340-strong turnout at the ISC was the biggest crowd of the eight games played, surpassing even Lang Park, where 17,451 ecstatic Queenslanders watched Brisbane thrash Manly 44-10. Undeterred by their opening setback, Newcastle posted their first win a week later, a scrappy, hard-fought 20-16 victory against incumbent wooden spooners Western Suburbs at Campbelltown.
"We are happy to take the two points but it's nothing to write home about," McMahon said. "We won it, lost it, and then won it again. I'm happy with the way we hung in there but we really can't get carried away with it." After swooping on a loose ball in the 29th minute and diving over the line, speedster Brian Quinton became the first Knight to score a top-grade try.
Next start, to prove that was no fluke, Newcastle upset Balmain at the International Sports Centre, also by 20-16, after McMahon outsmarted his former mentor Warren Ryan with a reshuffled backline, featuring 20-year-old Kiwi Tony Kemp as the last line of defence. "At half-time Newcastle looked a beaten side," Ryan said afterwards, admitting the Knights had surprised him by fighting back from a 12-8 deficit.
Manly were lying in wait the following week at Brookvale Oval, avenging the Challenge Cup boilover with a 44-12 thumping, the start of a six-game losing streak for the Newcastle newcomers. Included in this tough run was a 24-10 defeat by Brisbane at the ISC, which attracted a mind-blowing crowd of 30,220, the vast majority of them standing shoulder to shoulder on the three embankments, drenched by steady rain.
The return bout between the two fledgling sides was at Lang Park in the penultimate round, and Newcastle's 24-8 loss left them facing an unenviable dilemma. After wins against Wests, Balmain, South Sydney (17-10), Parramatta (17-16) and a 10-all draw with Cronulla from their first 21 games, the Knights had slipped to last on the ladder. With one match left, at home to the North Sydney Bears who had overpowered Newcastle 40-6 in round seven - a heroic last stand was needed to avoid the wooden spoon.
McMahon delivered the same message to his players and the media: "We don't want it [the spoon], we don't think we deserve it and we're going to do everything in our power to make sure we don't get stuck with it."
Tony Butterfield, the fearless young prop from Penrith, went one step further, posting a written challenge on the dressing-room noticeboard, demanding that everyone, from first-graders down to under-21s,sign up and commit to winning all three grades on that last day of the season.
Newcastle's players upheld their pledge to each other, posting wins in both curtain-raisers before racking up a remarkable 38-6 victory in first grade. That left the Knights 14th on the ladder, ahead of Gold Coast and Wests, both of whom lost their final-round games.
"We had to avoid the wooden spoon," a relieved McMahon said. "It is what we aimed for at training all week."
For Newcastle fans, it was cause for celebration. Their first season in the top league had started and finished in triumphant fashion. In between, McMahon had used 36 players, including 27 debutants at this level of football. Among them were a nucleus of regulars who proved they could become long-term fixtures.
In stark contrast to the Broncos and Gold Coast, Newcastle had invested in potential rather than proven performers. McMahon's recruitment policy was the "three Ts" - players had to be able to tackle, they had to be tough, and they had to have plenty of tomorrows. McMahon said every player they signed had "a common denominator". "We didn't want to attract superannuation beneficiaries of 29 or 30, who'd think: 'I'll go to Newcastle, play two years and retire.'," he said.
That philosophy delivered value-for-money dividends. Players shared a unique camaraderie. They were brothers in arms, living the dream. They would train early in the morning in a makeshift gym (converted from squash courts next door to the stadium) and work during the day as plumbers, carpenters, labourers, barmen or sales reps, then return for conditioning and ball-work in the afternoon at an array of suburban grounds. Even McMahon had a "regular job", working for a poker-machine company.
On the morning of their games, the Knights would board the bus to Sydney, then empty an esky or two on the drive home.
Many players were from out of town yet soon fell in love with the city. And the feeling was mutual - the average home crowd of 20,617 was the biggest in the league, more than 4000 per game better than Brisbane: (16,111). Of those 36 foundation Knights, more than half still live in Newcastle to this day.
But team spirit and parochial support, as evidenced by bumper home crowds, could take the Knights only so far. Their season statistics (270 points for, 460 against) stood as testimony to the battle they faced each week to compete, let alone win. Fortunately for McMahon and his brave young men, reinforcements were on the way.
HARD YARDS: THE STORY OF THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS. www.theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/