AS the Knights hoisted the first senior trophy in their history and prepared for more than a few celebratory beers on the bus trip back to Newcastle, they could hardly have imagined how the nextfew months would unfold.
The World Sevens tournament at Parramatta Stadium was an annual pre-season highlight, bringing together every first-grade team and capacity crowds, all revelling in the high-octane, razzle-dazzle football. The Knights were rated 33-1 long shots before a ball was kicked. Yet game by game, they kept knocking out more fancied rivals, eventually securing a berth against St George in the final.
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With seconds to play in the decider, Saints were clinging to a four-point lead when Marc Glanville crashed over from dummy-half in the corner, maintaining his record of a try in every game. From the left-hand sideline, the ice-cool Ashley Gordon snapped a field goal conversion to clinch a 24-22 victory and the $70,000 winners' cheque.
The victory reaffirmed the theory that Allan McMahon's giant-killers were a team on the rise. In Newcastle, there was a growing sense of expectation that, having come so close in 1990, this would be the year that delivered a maiden appearance in the finals. On paper at least, McMahon appeared to have bolstered his squad by strategic investments in bargain buys and cast-offs.
With Steve Fulmer returning from a long-term knee injury, Newcastle signed Steve Linnane, the 1985 Dally M rookie of the year, who had been sacked by St George for disciplinary reasons after 99 first-grade games. Linnane came accompanied by fellow Dragon Jason Hoogerwerf, a heavyweight prop.
From Canberra McMahon sourced another front-rower in Dave Woods, who played 12 games the previous season in the Raiders' premiership campaign. And from Eastern Suburbs, McMahon enlisted rangy and experienced back-rower Mike McLean. All of whom, for various reasons, were unwanted by their former clubs.
Meanwhile, the wildcard up McMahon's sleeve was a player yet to debut in the top grade, former All Blacks rugby union centre John Schuster. Schuster had switched codes midway through the 1990 season, but McMahon was happy to bide his time. After serving an apprenticeship in reserve grade, the goal-kicking 27-year-old was ready to start earning his keep.
The portents for Newcastle appeared promising, but a surprise development just weeks before the season kicked off blindsided McMahon. Concerned about issues regarding blood and transmission of diseases, rugby league's head office introduced the unlimited-interchange rule. It was a classic case of moving the goalposts at the last minute.
Before this initiative, teams had been permitted four replacements - two fresh reserves and two players who had played at least half a reserve-grade game. Suddenly, it was open slather.
It would be easy to say the new law was the same for everyone. But the Knights, perhaps more than any team, had an ingrained playing style. They would hammer away relentlessly in the forwards, backing themselves to grind down the opposition. When they gained the ascendancy up front,they would search for opportunities to put points on the board.
Suddenly, their rivals could just roll out fresh players whenever it suited them. Coaches were soon making up to 40 interchanges per game, and McMahon estimated that the speed of each play-the-ball had more than halved. Power-based "go-forward" had been superceded by mobility and athleticism. The fabric of the game had fundamentally changed.
It was not until April, after a public backlash, that the NSWRL again tweaked the rules, restricting each club to four fresh reserves and a total of six interchanges. By then, unfortunately for the Knights, they were in the unaccustomed position of playing catch-up football.
Nonetheless, Newcastle launched their season in fine style at home against Cronulla, with a 28-8 triumph in which Linnane scored twice and Schuster, off the bench, also grabbed a double.
After five rounds, the Knights were undefeated, the only problem being that three of those games finished as draws: against Penrith (away) and Balmain and Easts (both at home). The advent of golden-point extra time was 12 years away. After the dour 7-all stalemate with the Roosters, Newcastle headed to Belmore and suffered their first loss of the season, a 36-8 spanking.
A 16-2 win at home a week later against Illawarra lifted them into the top five, but McMahon was concerned that the points table was flattering to deceive.
Sure enough, in their next six games, the Knights won only once. In among losses to Norths, Gold Coast, Wests, St George and Canberra, Newcastle's only success was a 9-8 win at home to Manly.
The 16-12 loss at home to the Gold Coast was overshadowed by reports that new recruits Dave Woods and Mike McLean had been seen out at a harbourside watering hole the night before the game. Both were given the benefit of the doubt after insisting they were not drinking, but the episode did not sit well with their teammates or Knights officials.
Adding to the perception that disciplinary standards were slipping, news surfaced of an embarrassing episode involving an advertising poster for sponsor Tooheys.
At some point during the group photo shoot, one player decided to flash more than a smile. Sure enough, the photo of the player with his shorts pulled to one side was the one that, unwittingly, was printed on thousands of posters. When the faux pas was revealed, the mortified player was dragged before the board and ordered to pay for the posters to be re-printed - but not before the original version was widely circulated.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, players were growing frustrated about their on-field performances. They felt their playing style had become too predictable. Rival teams were using rolling interchanges to beat Newcastle at their own game. After a team meeting, senior players voiced their concerns to McMahon. They wanted more scope to spread the ball, and perhaps a fresh approach to training.
McMahon held firm, insisting that the same principles applied, regardless of the interchange. A team had to go forward before they could go sideways. McMahon had a favourite saying: "You have to dance with the one who brung you." In other words, he viewed changing Newcastle's modus operandi as too much of a gamble. "Rugby league is not a game of shortcuts," was another of his mantras. "You get found out."
Matters came to a head after Newcastle's round-14 clash at Parramatta, in which the visitors were humbled 30-0.
A day later, McMahon and assistant coach Bell stunned Knights officials by advising they were resigning. The decision came just two months after McMahon had signed a two-year contract extension.
"Unfortunately, due to present circumstances, many of which I believe are beyond my control, and in the long-term future of the Knights, I believe a change of coaches for the first-grade side is in the best interests of the club as a whole,'' McMahon said in a statement.
"I take with me memories of a team which started from scratch, that did Newcastle proud during a period of many and continuing hard times ... the Knights, with a great reservoir of young talent, are assured of a bright future and I wish them well."
Whatever qualms Newcastle's players had with McMahon's tactics, this was not their desired outcome. Most of them were gutted. Newcastle officials were unaware that McMahon was even considering such a drastic move.
On the day of McMahon's resignation, Knights chairman Max Fox said it was a "very brave decision" that came completely out of the blue. "I've never been so shocked," Fox said. "He's been an excellent coach. We didn't have a regular first-grader when he started." Foundation director Michael Hill recalled: "We knew nothing about team meetings or discontent. As a board, we were fully supportive of Macca. The team was struggling but as far as we were concerned, his position was under no pressure at all and he was going to be our coach for at least another two years."
McMahon clearly felt the situation had become untenable. Something had to give. His players were not performing, and if he was to change his game plans and training sessions to appease them, it would be the thin edge of the wedge, undermining his authority. You can't allow the lunatics any say in running the asylum.
He was also frustrated that information from disgruntled players was finding its way into the media. After Gary Wurth was dropped to reserve grade mid-season, the 30-year-old fullback voiced his disappointment in the Newcastle Herald, highlighting the growing friction between the coach and some of his key men. The circle of trust had fractured. With a heavy heart, McMahon relinquished control of the team he had fashioned in his own image.
McMahon's reserve-grade coach, David Waite, was appointed as an interim replacement. After the club considered expressions of interest from 17 candidates, Waite eventually landed a two-year contract. "I'm delighted to be appointed but the work is there for me to do," he said.
His first four games all ended in defeat, extending Newcastle's losing streak to a club-record seven matches. Then came a 32-16 win against Souths, followed by a 22-12 victory against Easts, before the season fizzled out with losses to Canterbury and Illawarra. That left the Knights a disappointing 13th on the ladder, after six wins,three draws and 13 losses, a far cry from their semi-final aspirations. For-and-against statistics (308 and 424) showed how far they had slipped.
I believe a change of coaches for the first-grade side is in the best interests of the club.ALLAN McMAHON
The failed campaign prompted a roster cleanout. Founding players Jeff Doyle (71 games) and Scott Carter (42) were released, along with second-season inductees Gary Wurth (39) and Peter Johnston (45). McLean, Woods and Linnane were also moved on after just one season.
Amid the doom and gloom, there were still positives to emerge.
Giant youngster Paul Harragon played in 16 top-grade games and, after attracting interest from the Broncos, signed a two-year extension with his home-town club. Harragon admitted he was sorely tempted to accept Brisbane's offer, but a conversation with new coach Waite swayed him. Waite asked the wavering Harragon to picture himself on grand final day, holding aloft the premiership trophy. "Now imagine looking down at your socks,'' Waite said. "Are they blue and red?" Harragon needed no more prompting.
Schuster, the silky-skilled former All Black, made a triumphant transition to top-grade rugby league, playing in 22 matches, scoring 11 tries and kicking 32 goals.
Meanwhile, fresh talent was starting to emerge. Newcastle, coached by foundation first-grader Rob Tew, won the Jersey Flegg (under-19) grand final, in which a kid from Toowoomba named Robbie O'Davis scored two tries. Maitland utility back Brad Godden made an impact in his four first-grade games, while fellow local juniors Matthew Johns and Adam Muir had made their reserve-grade debuts. Season 1991 may have been an unexpected and painful setback for the Knights, but all hope was not lost.
HARD YARDS: THE STORY OF THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS. www.theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/