NEWCASTLE'S playing style during their inaugural season could best be described as trench warfare.
This was the era of the five-metre rule, before the introduction of the interchange, when grounds were often reduced to quagmires by mid-winter rain, and sodden leather balls challenged the safest of hands. In addition, many teams, including the Knights, had plagiarised the up-and-in "umbrella" defensive system developed by Warren Ryan at Newtown and Canterbury, by which centres and wingers rushed up before their opponents could spin the ball wide, forcing them back to the centre of the field. All this suited Allan McMahon just fine.
Toohey's News: Listen to Barry Toohey's new podcast in your Podcast app
Most teams had an edge on Newcastle in terms of backline pace and razzle dazzle. But the Knights believed they could compete with any rivals in the battle up front. McMahon had a few credos he instilled in his men. "Put your body on the line," he would say. He also espoused a mindset that would be passed down from one generation of Knights to the next: "Be the bloke everyone else wants to play with."
Led by the "Bruise Brothers", David Boyd and Tony Butterfield, and the flint-hard Glenn Miller on the edges, Newcastle approached the art of tackling with kamikaze intensity. As game plans go,the policy of using defence as a form of attack was simple but effective.
To progress beyond fighting battles of attrition, however, McMahon recognised that the Knights would need new weapons that increased their firepower. Before full-time had sounded on their 1988 campaign, heavy artillery had been secured.
Be the bloke everyone else wants to play with.ALLAN McMAHON
Newcastle's first key signing was one of their own, former Central Charlestown prop Mark Sargent. Sargent resisted joining the Knights a year earlier, but after making 19 top-grade appearances in Canterbury's fearsome pack, at the age of 24 he agreed to return home.
Accompanying him was Canterbury teammate Michael Hagan, whose 74th and last game for the Bulldogs proved a real-life fairytale, when he scored a try in their 24-12 grand final triumph over Balmain. At 24, Hagan liked the idea of joining a club where he would be a leader and the fulcrum oftheir attack.
Next to enlist was classy Eastern Suburbs fullback Gary Wurth, whom McMahon knew closely from their time in Canberra. If Sargent was McMahon's armoured tank, and Hagan his on-field lieutenant, the man fans christened "Wotsy" Wurth would prove to be Newcastle's cold-blooded sniper from backfield.
Complementing the three main recruits were hard-hitting former Canterbury and Easts prop Peter Johnston, burly Stockton-bred utility back John Allanson, back in town after 29 first-grade games for Wests Magpies, and wingers Dairi Kovae and Arnold Krewanty, among the first Papua New Guinea imports to try their luck in the big league.
Before a ball was kicked in 1989, McMahon predicted "we have tougher and more skilled players and we have much greater depth", and the new recruits were quick to prove their worth.
As was the case 12 months earlier, Newcastle tackled the premiers, Canterbury, in their final trial match, with the Herald Challenge Cup again up for grabs. The match was almost cancelled at the 11th hour, after wily Bulldogs CEO Peter Moore threatened to withdraw unless his club received a guaranteed cut of the gate-takings.
After a week of haggling, eventually a compromise was agreed, and Canterbury pocketed a $20,000 appearance fee. If that was a moral victory for the visitors, it counted for little on the field.
With a line-up that featured ex-Bulldogs Hagan, Sargent, Johnston, Boyd and Glenn Frendo, Newcastle prevailed 18-16 - in front of 18,000 jubilant fans, after Sargent created a memorable first impression with a powerful try.
Knocking over the defending champions was just the morale boost Newcastle needed heading into their season-opener, and a gritty 19-10 win against Wests at the ISC - which included a debut try from Hagan - underlined their progress.
But the result also raised the eyebrows of Balmain coach Warren Ryan and his players, who started planning a round-two comeuppance at Leichhardt Oval.
While Manly, Canterbury and the Broncos were coveted scalps, there is little doubt the fiercest rivalry of Newcastle's formative seasons was with the Tigers. McMahon desperately wanted to beat his friend and former tutor Ryan, and Newcastle's young forwards relished the challenge of ripping into Test stars Wayne Pearce, Steve Roach, Paul Sironen, Ben Elias and Bruce McGuire.
And so to Sunday, March 26 - a day when, in many ways, the Knights came of age. The final scoreline read 22-20 to the home side, but Newcastle were left believing they had won everywhere except on the scoreboard.
In a ferocious, spiteful, controversy-riddled 80 minutes, the Knights were caned 16-7 in the penalties - 8-1 in the second half - lost Butterfield, Frendo and Kiwi prop James Goulding to the sin-bin, and had prop Peter Johnston sent off for an alleged eye gouge on Balmain's Michael Pobjie.
At one stage in the second half, Newcastle were down to 10 men yet still managed, miraculously, to create a try for Gary Wurth that got them back into the contest. Meanwhile, Knights skipper Sam Stewart lodged an onfield complaint with referee Bill Harrigan, claiming that his Test teammate Gary Freeman had gouged Sargent, leaving the big prop with a bloodshot left eye that forced him from the field.
"I've got nothing to say ... we can't afford it," a furious McMahon said after the game, fearing a fine if he verbalised hist houghts."But I'm very upset."
A smug Ryan indicated Newcastle got what they deserved, saying they "did not know when to draw the line" with their spoiling tactics. "Their repeated infringements seemed aimed at wearing the referee out," he said. "The referee is to be commended forsticking to his guns."
In an emotional dressing-room, McMahon asked Johnston if he had gouged Pobjie. When he adamantly denied it, the Knights vowed to defend him to the hilt.
Shrewdly, McMahon then invited photographers into Newcastle's inner sanctum to get close-ups off the scratches around Sargent's eyes, which painted an incriminating picture in Monday's newspapers. "We want justice for Sargent," McMahon said. "To see his eye now is bloody disgraceful."
Two nights later, at a highly charged judiciary hearing, Knights chairman Max Fox - one of Newcastle's most prominent barristers - applied the blowtorch to referee Harrigan, accusing him of having a "fertile imagination" and panicking during a volatile game. Johnston insisted: "I have never eye gouged anyone and I would never eye gouge anyone."
Harrigan failed what Fox described as "a credibility test". The judiciary rejected the referee's evidence and Johnston was exonerated. Freeman, who had subsequently been cited, copped a 12-week suspension after a "shattered" Stewart testified against him. The pair had played seven Tests together for New Zealand, including a 13-6 win against Australia in 1987.
Yet this was a classic case of club before country. Stewart told reporters after the hearing that Freeman did not say one word to him, adding: "Maybe now he is an ex-friend." The Knights felt vindicated by both judicial outcomes but were castigated by the game's most powerful officials.
NSWRL general manager John Quayle described the medical evidence Newcastle tendered as "irrelevant" and added: "Are all [their] players angels? Are they the only ones who get gouged?"
NSWRL chairman Ken Arthurson then took Fox to task for what he described as "terror tactics" in the hearing. "Referees are not on trial - players are," Arthurson said. "No referee should be cross-examined with suggestions that his decisions are a figment of a fertile imagination."
The Leichhardt loss and ensuing drama galvanised McMahon and his men. A week later, they ground out a bruising 14-0 win against Manly at the ISC, with tries from Hagan and Wurth.
By now, Newcastle's Turton Road stadium was starting to become a fortress. They won their first five games on home turf, and eight out of 11 over the course of the season, including a particularly sweet 20-12 triumph against Balmain in round 17, in which young back-rower Paul Harragon terrorised the Tigers' big names, and speedster Ashley Gordon made his top-grade debut.
Harragon, who signed for $1800 in 1988 and would arrive at training each day in a battered Ford Falcon after working as a fitter-and-turner at Kooragang coal loader, was quickly transforming into a juggernaut.
Gordon, a year 12 student at Cardiff High School when he became the first player the Knights ever recruited, was so spindly some wondered if a decent tackle would snap him in half. But he was so fast and mercurial, opponents struggled to lay a hand on him.
By season's end, Newcastle had broken even - 11 wins and 11 losses from 22 games - to place seventh on the ladder. Even their attacking and defensive statistics, 281 points for and 281 against, finished all square.
Included in their wins were victories against both grand finalists, premiers Canberra and runners-up Balmain. Nonetheless, despite significant improvement, they were still six points behind the top five and never seriously challenged for a semi-final berth.
Newcastle's home crowds remained the league's benchmark, increasing by 600 spectators per game to an average of 21,235. Most clubs were lucky to average half that.
There were also individual milestones to celebrate. Hagan became Newcastle's first State of Origin representative, playing all three games for Queensland in a clean sweep against NSW.
Sargent and Wurth wore NSW Country's colours in the annual clash with City Origin. Butterfield, meanwhile, played for City Firsts in the curtain-raiser, then came off the bench in City Origin's 16-8 win.
Stewart and Tony Kemp played in eight Tests apiece for New Zealand, including a 3-0 losing series to Australia and an end-of-season tour of Great Britain, accompanied by Knights clubmate James Goulding in five of those games.
And in an unexpected but thoroughly deserved bonus, Sargent was honoured when he was named as joint winner of the Rothmans Medal with Cronulla veteran Gavin Miller.
It was the first time the game's most coveted individual award, based on referees' 3-2-1 votes for the best players in each game, had been shared.
"You don't do much better than this," Sargent said afterwards, in disbelief. "It is undoubtedly the high point of my career, and I am lost for words. I would like to thank everybody involved with the Newcastle club, and in particular the guys I played with."
He later described the medal as "something that comes along once in a lifetime, if you're lucky. It's not an award you can deliberately set out to win."
When Sargent emerged many hours later, after a night of celebration culminating in an obligatory visit to the Bourbon and Beefsteak at Kings Cross, his photo on the front page of the morning newspapers rammed home the magnitude of his achievement.
Sargent's surprise success summed up Newcastle's campaign.
As the dust settled on season 1989, the general consensus was that the Knights had taken great strides, but the best was yet to come.
HARD YARDS: THE STORY OF THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS. www.theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/