THE frustration of 1991 provided the Knights with motivational fuel during the long, hot pre-season.
If Allan McMahon had been criticised for a safety-first playing style, new coach David Waite was not about to make the same mistake. He recognised that Newcastle needed a more expansive game and spent the summer months instilling new attacking strategies and skills.
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In saying that, Waite was also well aware that his greatest asset was a pack that featured hardened warriors such as Sargent, Butterfield, Boyd and Glanville, and defensive workhorses Mullane and Marquet.
Then there was Paul Harragon, whose first four seasons had been restricted to 37 games by injuries. "The Chief" had been punishing himself throughout the off-season with ageless Charlestown boxing trainer Wal Bentley, increasing his powers of endurance and knowledge of the sweet science. If he could stay fit, he shaped as a weapon of mass destruction.
In what would prove a masterstroke, Waite gambled on converting versatile Robbie McCormack into a hooker. McCormack, whose career was almost written off after a shocking broken ankle in 1989, had played five-eighth, halfback, centre and back row in the top grade. Waite believed the man they called "Moth" had the ticker and talent to handle dummy-half.
In the backline, Waite opted for an infusion of youth. Rookie Matthew Rodwell was handed first crack at playing halfback alongside skipper Hagan. Brad Godden was installed as Gary Wurth's replacement at fullback. Long-limbed Queenslander Adrian Brunker, after 14 games and six tries as centre in 1991, had earned an extended run.
A 14-all draw at home to Illawarra in the season-opener was not the start Waite had been hoping for. But an upset 14-2 win away against defending premiers Penrith in round two kicked off a four-game winning streak, highlighted by a bruising 16-13 victory against Manly in Auckland, and a club-record 42-6 romp against the Gold Coast. The excitement mounting in Newcastle was tempered by four successive defeats, as the Knights slipped from second to sixth.
Harragon's imposing form in the early rounds earned him his first representative jersey, in the annual City-Country match. Reduced to tears after being ruled out of the corresponding match 12 months earlier with injury, he made up for lost time with an emphatic two-try showing in Country's 17-10 win.
Some players take time to find their feet at rep level. Some are overawed and never take the next step. The Chief just dominated from the outset. His Country outing guaranteed him a NSW Origin debut in a series-opening 14-6 win against Queensland, the first of what would become 20 consecutive interstate appearances over seven years.
His Blues teammates in game one included McCormack, a surprise choice as bench utility.
Queensland, with Adrian Brunker playing outside Mal Meninga, scrambled a 5-4 win in game two, but NSW prevailed 16-4 in the decider, after which Blues coach Phil Gould handed Harragon a ball autographed by his teammates, signifying he was their player of the series.
There was an even greater honour for the 23-year-old when, soon afterwards in the SCG members' bar, he heard his name read out in the Australian squad for the opening Test against Great Britain. Nine days later, Harragon wore the green and gold in the first of 20 Tests. The Kangaroos celebrated a 22-6 win and their debutant front-rower marked the occasion with a tackle that ended the career of Pommy prop Ian Lucas.
Harragon and Lucas had been baiting each other throughout the game, and then the Englishman took a fateful hit-up from a tap kick. Harragon met him with such extreme force that Lucas was left unconscious for an hour. He did not play again on tour and retired soon after returning to England. "We've asked ARL general manager Bob Abbott to take a look at the Harragon tackle," Lions team manager Maurice Lindsay said after the game. "We've made a complaint."
Harragon was never cited and insisted his conscience was clear, arguing his hip had accidentally struck Lucas's head. "You're playing a Test match but don't want anyone to get hurt," he said. "There was nothing wrong with the tackle. There was no malice."
Harragon, who played in the remaining two Tests against Great Britain in Australia's 2-1 series win, was fast gaining a reputation as one of the game's most feared hitmen. As well as Lucas, he had also knocked out Penrith's Brett Boyd, Manly's Martin Bella and Queensland's Gary Larson in quick succession. When he then left North Sydney's David Fairleigh concussed and nursing a broken nose in Newcastle's 10-2 win in round 15, his luck ran out. The judiciary handed him a four-game ban, which included a Test against Papua New Guinea.
Harragon's absence meant his fellow bookend, Mark Sargent, was called in,scoring his only Test try - off the bench - in a 36- 14 victory.
A defiant Harragon insisted after the judiciary hearing: "There is nothing wrong with my tackling style. Anyone who watches the video can draw their own conclusions."
But after some harsh criticism in the media, in particular when former dual international Michael O'Connor said high tackles from the Chief were "happening every week", he decided to address the issue. As well as working overtime on his defensive technique, he penned a letter to NSWRL chief executive John Quayle, pointing out that until 1992, he had maintained an unblemished record. He also vowed to become a "guardian" of rugby league's image.
Despite losing their forward leader to rep duties and suspension, the Knights found their groove mid-season, stringing together seven wins in nine games.
By round 14 they had climbed to second on the ladder, thanks in part to a bizarre 12-11 win against Canterbury at Belmore, when Bulldogs skipper Terry Lamb kicked a field goal in the dying minutes, later revealing he was under the misapprehension scores were locked at 10-all.
Along the way, Waite had made one notable and surprising team change, dropping winger Ashley Gordon for energetic Robbie O'Davis. It seemed a strange move, given that Gordon, with nine tries in nine games, was Newcastle's leading tryscorer.
But O'Davis, a livewire who played above his weight, would become a club legend over the course of the next 13 seasons.
With the finals in sight, the Knights appeared to have slipped up, drawing 20-all on the Gold Coast and copping a 37-12 hammering from Brisbane in the penultimate round.
That left them needing a last-round victory against Canberra to guarantee a first-ever top-five finish.
Harragon may have been a headline act all year, but with the season on the line he was overshadowed by Sargent.
Against a Canberra team reduced to 12 men when prop Paul Osborne was sent off, the Knights trailed 7-6 shortly after half-time and appeared in danger of missing the top-five cut.
But in the space of 20 minutes, big Sarge - fuming after being replaced early in the second half - returned to bulldoze his way to a hat-trick of tries and clinch a 22-11 triumph in front of 23,617 ecstatic fans.
Given what was at stake, it was perhaps Sargent's finest hour. "I hope people don't come along next week expecting a repeat performance," he joked afterwards.
It was a milestone occasion for the Knights.
All three of their teams had qualified for the play-offs, and they finished as joint club champions with Brisbane.
Not content with just reaching the final five, fourth-placed Newcastle carried that momentum into the post-season, eliminating Warren Ryan's Wests Magpies 21-2 first-up with a minimum of fuss.
A week later, their fairytale run came to an end when they were pipped 3-2 by St George in the first tryless play-off since the 1986 grand final.
The Knights had kept the line intact for two sudden-death showdowns but were out on their backsides,regardless.
"For the purist, it was a very, very good defensive game," Waite said after the loss to St George, who would eventually be outclassed by Brisbane in the grand final. "But I don't know that rugby league fans are enthralled by a score of 3-2 ... it was a classic arm-wrestle.
"Warren Ryan would have been very pleased with it."
The coach had no qualms about his players trying, unsuccessfully, to conjure a match-winning try when they were in good position for an equalising field goal.
There was nothing wrong with the tackle. There was no malice.PAUL HARRAGON
"It's been a football team that has backed its ability in taking the initiative all year," Waite said.
"I would never be critical of them for that, and I certainly wouldn't accept any criticism for not attempting the field goal. Three or four times this year they've come back and won games in the last 30 or 40 seconds of the game by taking the initiative and being brave."
Disappointed as he was, Waite also had enough perspective to note: "If you give your best and the other team wins, at the end of the day you sleep a lot easier."
Their season was over but there were other highlights in store for the Knights. Rodwell, touted as the new "face" of rugby league before he had even made his starting debut, lived up to the star billing when he was named Dally M rookie of the year. He played in all 24 of Newcastle's games - the same number as Hagan, Sargent and Schuster, the last of whom racked up a club-record haul of 152 points.
Harragon and Sargent were named in Australia's World Cup squad, along with Godden, who was such a bolter that his wedding day had to be fast-tracked because it clashed with the trip to England.
After the warm-up games against Huddersfield, Sheffield and Cumbria, Godden and Harragon were omitted for the World Cup final, but Sargent made his first starting Test appearance, helping Australia clinch the trophy with a 10-6 win against the host nation in front of 73,631 at the old Wembley.
At the end of a breakthrough season, two departures caused a brief pause in celebrations.
The much-loved match-winner "Flash" Gordon, having inexplicably fallen out of favour with coach Waite, signed with Penrith, after 56 appearances and 33 tries for his home-town team.
Disappointed as he was to leave, the 23-year-old was optimistic that "the change might do me good. It might help my football".
Inaugural captain Sam Stewart, meanwhile, headed to England at the age of 30, where he would play another four years for London Crusaders and Hull Kingston Rovers.
Stewart's value to the Knights extended way beyond his 81 games. His affable nature and squeaky-clean image had made him a household name and crowd favourite. It was a fitting honour when Knights officials chose him as their first life-membership recipient.
"No one in the club's short history has epitomised the commitment to the common cause more than our inaugural captain," Knights chairman Michael Hill said.
"After 81 first-grade and 38 reserve-grade appearances on the field and countless appearances off field, no one is more deserving of the first life membership than Samuel Weka Stewart."
HARD YARDS: THE STORY OF THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS. www.theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/