THREE weeks before the 2005 NRL season kicked off, the Newcastle Knights were in crisis. And then things went from bad to worse.
After a successful trial match in Bathurst, in which a Newcastle team largely devoid of big names beat Penrith 44-20, a group of players breached their 3am hotel curfew and headed to nearby Charles Sturt University.
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As they nursed hangovers the next morning, reports started surfacing of inappropriate conduct, which police confirmed they were investigating.
In amongst a litany of drunken, oafish antics was a serious allegation - a Newcastle player had allegedly entered the dormitory of a female student, uninvited, and startled her awake, apparently by touching her.
The NRL and Knights officials immediately entered damage-control mode.
The Newcastle club was hit with a $100,000 fine, with a further $100,000 suspended. Knights management fined 11 players a total of $50,000, while another, 20-year-old prop Dane Tilse, the room invader, was sacked by the club and de-registered by the NRL.
He would later sign with Canberra. The 12 players were condemned as the "Dirty Dozen" by newspaper headlines.
All were hauled in, shame-faced, to front a media conference, at which acting captain Kurt Gidley read out an apology on their behalf: "We'd like to stress our actions were unacceptable.
"We have breached our own code of conduct, the trust of the club and our supporters. We are committed ... to rebuilding that trust."
Knights chairman Michael Hill said the club's board of directors were "disgusted at this behaviour" but accepted that "the players have been honest with us and have shown contrition".
Chief executive Ken Conway vowed to break what he labelled a "grog culture".
Compounding the public-relations disaster, it cost the Knights a three-year, $2 million major sponsorsorship with global electronics company Gizmondo, who withdrew their offer because of the public outcry.
Soon afterwards, Hill opted to stand down as chairman when it became apparent his deputy, businessman Mike Tyler, was preparing to mount a challenge.
Hill's view was that the last thing the Knights needed after the Bathurst debacle was "squabbling" in the boardroom.
After helping found the club and serving for 10 years as chairman, in two stints, Hill would remain a lifelong supporter, hopeful that one day the Knights would again enjoy success to match the golden era he oversaw.
Newcastle's players, meanwhile, were praying that the return of Andrew Johns from his knee reconstruction would allow them to salvage some credibility on the field. Instead the horror show continued.
Opening the season with four straight away games while the finishing touches were applied to the new $30 million eastern grandstand at Newcastle's EnergyAustralia Stadium, the Knights were reeling after losses to Melbourne, Canberra, North Queensland and Souths by a combined tally of 176-54.
Hopes that home turf would provide some sanctuary were shattered in round five. Leading 20-0 against the Warriors, Newcastle lost Country Origin forward Daniel Abraham, after his right leg snapped in two places, and then the great Joey Johns, who suffered a two-centimetre displaced fracture of the jaw.
The Warriors powered home to win 30-26, leaving Newcastle winless and in a world of pain. The losses continued to mount, as did the injuries.
As well as Johns and Abraham, Buderus was restricted to 15 games, while Kurt Gidley (10), Matt Gidley (12), Mark Hughes (5), Josh Perry (7) and Kirk Reynoldson (7) also made limited appearances.
For "Boozy" Hughes, one of the most popular players in the club's history, the round-11 loss to St George Illawarra would be his 161st and last appearance in the red and blue. In the 20th minute, the lightweight utility back broke a bone in his ankle, yet courageously played out the game.
At 28, he was disappointed to subsequently learn that Newcastle had no intention of re-signing him, after two injury-disrupted seasons. He could nonetheless feel well satisfied with what he had achieved in his career, the highlights including two grand final wins and three Origin games for NSW in 2001.
He opted to finish his career with French club Catalans Dragons in the northern hemisphere Super League - a cultural experience he could never have imagined as a kid growing up in Kurri Kurri. Exacerbating the injury toll, back-rower Clint Newton was unavailable for the first 10 rounds after copping a 12- week suspension for an attempted shoulder charge gone wrong, which left St George Illawarra rookie Ashton Sims bloodied and dazed late in the 2004 season.
Coach Michael Hagan's resources were stretched so thin that he signed 33-year-old former St George Illawarra enforcer Craig Smith, who at the peak of his career had somehow played for both Queensland and New Zealand. Smith had returned from four seasons with Wigan in England and was expecting to turn out for Thirroul Butchers in the Illawarra district competition. Instead he would extend his NRL career with a 45-game swansong at Newcastle.
With Johns and Kurt Gidley sidelined, Hagan was running out of playmaking options. In the library at St Francis Xavier, Hamilton, 18-year-old schoolboy Jarrod Mullen answered a call on his mobile phone and promptly turned white. "That was Hages," he told his schoolmates. "He wants me to train with first grade. He said I might need to play this weekend."
Sure enough, he debuted in a 32-16 loss at home to Wests Tigers. Mullen had been groomed for first grade, travelling to an away game as 18th man, an experience he remembered years later mainly because he was ambushed in his hotel room by teammates, who bound him in electrical tape and left him in the corridor, wrapped like an Egyptian mummy, for half an hour.
Pranks aside, Newcastle's season was no laughing matter. By now, the Knights were in freefall.
They passed the club's record seven-game losing streak in a 32-2 drubbing by the Roosters, followed by further defeats by the Tigers and Dragons. The dire situation prompted the redundant Robbie O'Davis to publicly offer his services, free of charge. "They retired me, I didn't retire myself ... I've still got things I want to achieve," he said. Many fans would have welcomed him back, but Knights officials showed no interest.
A 34-16 loss at home to Brisbane made it 11 straight, and a week later the Knights copped a 50-0 hiding at home from Parramatta - an indignity magnified by a pitch-invading spectator, carrying a can of beer, who tried to lend a hand in defence.
"Well somebody has to make a tackle," he told Newcastle's trainer Robbie Aubin before he was escorted from the field.
At least the return of Joey Johns provided cause for optimism. Johns showed enough in his comeback against the Broncos to earn a recall to the ultimate arena, State of Origin, for the first time in almost two years. Having played only one game in two months, Johns produced perhaps the performance of his career, inspiring a 32-22 win at Sydney's Olympic Stadium to level the series.
"I don't want to sound cocky or anything but I knew I was up to it," Johns said after receiving his man-of-the-match award. The Queensland coach, who just happened to be Michael Hagan, observed with mixed emotions: "It didn't take him too long to pick up where he left off really.''
Three weeks later, the Blues overwhelmed the Maroons 32-10 at Suncorp Stadium to retain the interstate title for the third straight year. The success that Johns, Buderus and Steve Simpson enjoyed with NSW was of little benefit to Newcastle, who were depleted enough without representative absentees.
After a 48-26 defeat at Brookvale, in which Ben Kennedy scored a try for Manly, Newcastle's win-loss record stood at 0-13, and they had conceded 458 points at an average of 35 per game.
Frustration spilled over when coach Hagan and his football manager, Mark Sargent, contacted the Newcastle Herald's Brett Keeble and invited him for a beer. They proceeded to talk openly about the impossible challenge of running their team on a shoestring budget. Lack of resources and a shortage of high-performance staff, they said, was contributing to Newcastle's crippling injury toll.
"We're a full-time professional sport, but our club is operating in a part-time environment," Hagan told Keeble. "That has been the case since 2001."
At a time when rival clubs were investing heavily in sports science and facilities, the Knights were the nomadic paupers of the NRL. Their main training field, the No.3 oval at the University of Newcastle's bushland campus at Callaghan, featured such archaic amenities as shipping containers that doubled as makeshift change rooms and Portaloos that most players refused to use, preferring to relieve themselves in the adjacent bush.
Representative regulars earning hundreds of thousands of dollars would sit in the back of a ute to have their ankles strapped. Weights sessions were held in whatever public gym offered the best sponsorship deal. All of which was an in-house secret, until Hagan and Sargent vented in the Herald.
The story went down like a lead balloon with Knights management. Sargent resigned soon afterwards, citing irreconcilable differences with his employers, while Hagan's cards were effectively stamped.
Finally, a much-needed morale boost arrived from an unlikely source. Chairman Mike Tyler received a tip that mining giant Coal and Allied were interested in becoming major sponsors, and a deal was soon struck. When the Knights ran out onto Penrith Park in round 16, for the first time all season they had a corporate logo on their chest.
Eighty minutes later, they were celebrating a breakthrough 28-14 win, after two tries from Clint Newton. In the remaining 10 rounds, they racked up seven more victories, including a six-game winning streak.
We're a full-time professional sport, but our club is operating in a part-time environment.MICHAEL HAGAN
A highlight was the round-18 win at home against the Cowboys when, after trailing 18-4 at half-time, two tries from schoolboy Mullen inspired a 22-18 triumph.
The late-season revival was not enough to avoid the wooden spoon, but nonetheless the Knights emerged with a semblance of respect, and a glimmer of hope. Johns ended the season with a three-game stint for Warrington and then his first Test appearance in more than two years, a 38-28 loss to New Zealand in the Tri Nations.
A knee injury, however, ruled him out of the rest of the tournament, while Buderus proceeded to play in all five Tests alongside former teammates Kennedy and Tahu.
A year that started disastrously ended with a celebration, after affluent Western Suburbs Leagues Club agreed to underwrite the Knights for up to $1 million per annum for 12 years. "It gives us the stability we haven't had for a very long time, probably ever ... this is one of the most important days in the Knights' history. I don't think that is overstating it," chairman Tyler declared.
On and off the field, Newcastle were through the worst of it. Or so it seemed.
Hard Yards: The Story of the Newcastle Knights. Available to purchase from theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/ $19.95