COACH Allan McMahon rarely had to search for material to motivate his players.
Pride in their jersey, their town and themselves was all they needed. A whatever-it-takes, underdog mentality ensured they turned up each week committed to the cause. When they lost, it was never through lack of desire or effort.
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Yet two traumatic events, months apart, unexpectedly played into McMahon's hands and reinforced the steely will to win he had already instilled in his players.
The first occurred months before the Knights' third crusade kicked off. On Thursday, December 28, 1989, Newcastle's festive season was shattered by an earthquake that measured 5.5 on the Richter scale.
It was a terrible, unprecedented tragedy. As well as 13 casualties, more than 35,000 homes sustained some sort of damage, along with almost 150 schools and 3000 commercial premises. If you lived in Newcastle and weren't directly affected by the earthquake, you knew someone who was. Soon after the disaster, McMahon delivered a message to his players: our city is doing it tough, but we can help lift their spirits.
But after starting strongly with a 13-8 win at home to North Sydney, Newcastle struggled for the first third of the season, and after seven games had only two wins to their name. McMahon produced a selection shock after a 28-12 loss to Manly at Brookvale in round two, dropping skipper Sam Stewart to the bench and stripping him of the captaincy, which Michael Hagan inherited.
It was a landmark decision by the coach. Stewart was a crowd favourite but McMahon had been concerned for some time his performances were not justifying his reputation. And Hagan, since his arrival 12 months earlier, had called the shots anyway. It made sense to formally empower hima nd allow Stewart to focus on his own game. "Sam's position in the team is based on form, like everybody else ... in the three years he has been with us, Sam had certainly played better than he has in the last couple of weeks," McMahon said.
Stewart, however, was bemused. "There was no way I was our worst player," he said. "Maybe it's because I'm the captain and they needed someone to blame." Exacerbating an awkward situation, the Kiwi international had a weekly Newcastle Herald column entitled Captain's Diary. It was promptly renamed Sam Stewart's Diary.
A 34-0 rout of Wests a week later apparently justified McMahon's tough call, but then followed a 6-all draw at Penrith and successive losses to Parramatta, Brisbane and Balmain, which left the Knights languishing 12th on the ladder.
The suspension of the volatile Glenn Miller did little to help their cause. Loved by his teammates and Knights fans, Miller was the type of bloke opponents hated playing against, because he had no fear and paid no heed to reputations. He subscribed to the theory that rival outside backs were "only quick once they get past you". His job was to ensure that rarely happened.
In the 28-4 loss to Brisbane at home, Miller managed to produce two swinging-arm high tackles in the same passage of play, leaving Andrew Gee and Terry Matterson in Disneyland. The judiciary gave him five weeks on the sidelines.
Minus Miller, as the Knights prepared for their round-eight game against the St George Dragons at the ISC, they were already six points adrift of the top five. Adding to the pressure, Hagan was unavailable because of State of Origin commitments.
The Knights needed something - anything - to spark them from their malaise, but they would have preferred the catalyst arrived in different circumstances. As was the case with the earthquake, misfortune provided motivation.
Five minutes into the game, Knights hooker Scott Carter collided in an off-the-ball incident with Saints prop Peter Spring. In doing so, Carter collected the fearsome Spring with an elbow in the face. An enraged Spring gave chase and blindsided him with a brutal punch that fractured his protagonist's jaw in three places.
Spring was penalised but remained on the field. He subsequently received an eight-match suspension. Carter was suspended for four games, although it was immaterial, given that he spent the next month eating food through a straw. Incensed at the sight of their teammate being carried from the field, bloodied and in a world of pain, Newcastle's forwards reacted by seeking retribution.
Every time Spring took a hit-up, he was booed by the 17,550-strong crowd and belted by defenders. Suddenly the Knights of old were back. After battering St George up front, their backs started to capitalise out wide. The long-striding "Flash" Gordon scored a hat-trick - the first in the club's history - in a 32-10 triumph.
"He's a popular figure among the players and they naturally took offence when they saw what happened to him," coach McMahon said of Carter. "They weren't too happy when they found out his jaw was broken and I think that made them more committed to come up with the win." Pack leader Mark Sargent added: "It was an unfortunate way to get the team revved up. We were wild after that."
Carter's setback provided an unexpected bonus for coach McMahon. Bereft of dummy-half options, McMahon gambled on 20-year-old rookie David Mullane as his new No.9. The Tamworth product was a makeshift hooker, but what McMahon knew beyond question was that he could defend. Pound for pound, in the history of the Knights, no player has hit harder or more often than "Buggsy" Mullane.
Built like a Trevor Gillmeister or Steve Folkes - muscular and low to the ground - he had a similar capacity for rattling opposition ball-carriers. Mullane's emergence completed what would become one of the most feared packs in the competition.
Including the St George game, Newcastle strung together an unrivalled sequence of 10 victories in 11 games, racking up a club-record eight-game winning streak in the process. The only loss in that period was 27-21 in Canberra, when the premiers snatched two points in the dying seconds.
With Newcastle's forwards outmuscling and intimidating their opponents up front, the lightweight Gordon was scoring long-range tries and landing goals from all angles. After his hat-trick against the Dragons, he bagged a double against Illawarra a week later, then another hat-trick and four goals for a club-record 20-point haul in a 34-16 win against Easts soon after.
A week later, in a 16-8 win on the Gold Coast, he scored a scintillating runaway try that was lauded by the legendary Seagulls coach Bob McCarthy. "That was one of the best individual tries I've ever seen," McCarthy said. "I've got to applaud his class because there wouldn't be too many players in the world who could have scored that try. It was real Reg Gasnier stuff."
After their 34-2 carve-up of Wests Magpies in round 18, Newcastle were fourth on the ladder and had strung together five wins from six games on the road - a remarkable turnaround, given that their first two seasons had yielded five away wins from 22 games. Advice from Liverpool soccer legend and proud Novocastrian Craig Johnston was the secret to their new-found travelling success.
Johnston was aghast when he learned that the Knights boarded the team bus to Sydney on the morning of games. He explained that Liverpool and other English soccer clubs never spent more than an hour in transit. If their destination was further than that, they checked into a nearby hotel overnight. Unlike the Knights, money was no object for Liverpool, and they stayed in five-star luxury.
Newcastle's budget was far more modest. Their first team sleepover was in youth hostel-style cabins at Richmond, on the banks of the Nepean River. The following day they held Penrith to a 6-all draw. For games in the inner city, a two-star motel in Randwick became their home away from home. The Knights even took their own chef with them on the road, Warners Bay delicatessen owner John Lehman, a mate of McMahon's,to keep catering costs under control.
A 20-6 loss at home to eventual grand finalists Penrith, followed by a 12-all draw at Parramatta and a 24-14 loss in Brisbane left Newcastle sixth heading into the final round of the season. That meant they needed a win against fierce rivals Balmain to have any chance of reaching the finals.
The Tigers, meanwhile, required victory to shore up a spot in the top five.
On the last Sunday of the regular season, August 26, a record crowd of 32,217 crammed into the ISC to watch their heroes prevail or perish. By half-time, with Balmain leading 8-0, it appeared the latter would be the likely outcome.
Then, early in the second stanza, "Flash" Gordon lived up to his namesake and transformed into the saviour of Newcastle's universe, racing away for two tries with blinding acceleration. When Butterfield scored, controversially, the Knights led 16-8 and hung on to win 16-14. The result meant both Balmain and Newcastle finished equal fifth in the five-team finals series, an event that necessitated a play-off to settle the issue.
So two days later, at Parramatta Stadium, players from both teams summoned their last reserves of energy. It was time to live and let die. Balmain ground out a 12-4 win against an injury-hit Newcastle, with their tries coming from a bomb and an intercept.
For the Knights, any disappointment was outweighed by a sense of satisfaction. As coach McMahon wrote in his Newcastle Herald column, his team's performances had been a catalyst for "pride and unity". They had earned the respect of their rivals, and the absolute adulation of their fans.
As Balmain coach Warren Ryan noted: "It would be wrong not to pay tribute to the tremendous season Newcastle have had ... they are a cruel side to play against.
"They just keep coming and coming, not dropping the ball and not making mistakes, and their defence is outstanding.
"They haven't lost. The future is theirs."
There were further accolades for Newcastle in the weeks ahead. Ashley Gordon collected Dally M awards for leading tryscorer (15) and winger of the year. He was named in the Kangaroos tour train-on squad, along with Butterfield, centre Jeff Doyle and Sargent.
Then on Sunday, September 23, several hours after Canberra had beaten Penrith 18-14 in a cracking grand final, the phone rang at the house of Sargent's parents. The caller was the Newcastle Herald's Jack Farrell, one of the all-time great sports reporters, and the news he delivered caused pandemonium - Sargent had been selected in the Australian squad for the tour of Great Britain and France.
"You've got to remember that only about 10 weeks ago I was on crutches after doing my ankle in a game and thinking maybe a 20-year-old dream had been blown away," Sargent told Farrell.
"I'll be in Sydney tomorrow for the team medical and the first thing I'm going to do when I'm handed that Australian jersey is put it on."
The big prop would wear the green-and-gold in 11 games over the next two months, including a Test against Great Britain and two against the French. Newcastle would produce many other Australian Test players in the years to come, but there would only be one first Kangaroo.
Forever more big "Sarge" would wear that label as a badge of honour
They are a cruel side to play against. They just keep coming and coming.WARREN RYAN
HARD YARDS: THE STORY OF THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS. www.theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/