WHEN Wayne Bennett heard the Warriors were trying to offload prop Russell Packer, he knew he'd found his man.
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For the Knights to progress from play-off giant-killers to genuine premiership contenders, Bennett felt he needed a dominating front-rower capable of putting them on the front foot. Packer, who weighed 120 kilograms and had played in 110 NRL games and two Tests for the Kiwis, fitted Bennett's requirements perfectly, and the Knights were quick to sign him to a four-year contract. Packer's track record suggested he was no angel, but nobody could have predicted how spectacularly he would slip up, nor how abruptly.
In November 2013, within weeks of his arrival for pre-season training, the 24-year-old attended Newcastle Police Station to help with inquiries about an alleged incident outside a nightclub in Sydney's Martin Place. He was subsequently arrested and charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and failing to quit licensed premises. After liaising with the NRL integrity unit, the Knights stood him down, pending his appearance in the Downing Centre Local Court on January 6.
Newcastle officials and coach Bennett knew Packer would plead guilty to bashing a complete stranger unconscious and stomping on his head, leaving him with facial fractures, all of which had been filmed by closed-circuit TV cameras. Yet they continued to support him, apparently under the assumption that he would receive a good-behaviour bond and a period of de-registration from the NRL. They were hopeful he would play some part in their 2014 campaign.
The club was shocked when magistrate Greg Grogin remanded Packer in custody and handed down a two-year jail term (reduced on appeal to 12 months) for what he labelled a "cowardly and deplorable" assault. "Your behaviour on that night was nothing short of disgraceful ... you should be ashamed," Magistrate Grogin told Packer in court.
Under intense pressure to sack Packer, the Knights issued a statement, quoting Bennett as saying Packer had "acted inappropriately" but the club had "a duty of care to Russell and his family". They finally terminated his contract a week later, after delivering the news to him face-to-face, in prison.
As the club reeled from a public-relations disaster, equally momentous events were playing out confidentially, behind closed doors.
On January 31, Hunter Sports Group was supposed to have renewed Tinkler's annual bank guarantee, now reduced from the initial $20 million to $10.52 million. As the deadline approached, HSG chief executive Troy Palmer asked the Knights Members Club for an extension, explaining it would save the Knights $500,000 in bank fees. Reluctantly, HSG was granted a revised deadline of March 31.
The Newcastle Herald became aware of the secret extension and revealed on the front page: "Nathan Tinkler's ownership of the Newcastle Knights will be in jeopardy if he doesn't renew a multi-million-dollar bank guarantee within the next fortnight." Typically, HSG insiders insisted the bank guarantee would be secured, as promised. Knights chairman Paul Harragon told the Newcastle Herald: "The bank guarantee is in place until March 31 and I can confirm it will be renewed before then. It's all good."
I have done my bit for the town.NATHAN TINKLER
But it wasn't.
Tinkler was unable to renew the surety and had thus defaulted on his ownership agreement, and despite suggestions that HSG was working with the NRL on a possible joint venture, the truth was that the governing body wanted Tinkler out, and they now had the necessary leverage.
While all this was unfolding, Bennett faced the unenviable task of trying to deliver results on the field. When they arrived at AAMI Park on March 24 for their round-three clash with Melbourne, the Knights were winless and desperate. Come full-time, the 28-20 loss to the Storm was the least of their worries.
In the dying seconds of the first half, bench forward Alex McKinnon took a regulation hit-up. As he reached the defensive line, Melbourne trio Jesse and Kenny Bromwich and Jordan McLean arrived to effect the tackle. In a split-second, they tipped the 22-year-old and drove him head first towards the turf.
McKinnon recalled in his autobiography that he heard a "click" in his neck and would never forget that sound "for as long as I live". After screaming in panic to teammates that he couldn't move, he was taken from the field by ashen-faced medical staff and rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. Within a day, the Knights had released a statement confirming he had suffered a "devastating spinal injury".
There was an outpouring of grief as the full implication of his diagnosis became apparent. McKinnon would not only never play football again. He would need a miracle just to walk. As the stricken Aberdeen junior lay in intensive care, surrounded by his family and girlfriend Teigan Power, the NRL launched a fundraising campaign that would ultimately deliver McKinnon more than $1 million.
His shattered teammates had to prepare for a game of footy that suddenly seemed so meaningless. Nonetheless, on an emotional Sunday afternoon at Hunter Stadium, they somehow found the energy to "rise for Alex" and beat Cronulla 30-0.
The next nine games, however, would deliver only one win, leaving the Knights languishing in last place. Under the circumstances, Newcastle's players were virtually exempt from criticism. Only those in the inner sanctum would realise the heartache and trauma they endured.
In July, McKinnon faced the media for the first time to promote the NRL's "Rise for Alex" fundraising round. "I remember the whole thing," he said of the incident that left him crippled for life. "The one thing that sticks with me is just laying there and the whole crowd just looking at me. That's one of the things I really do remember. I've seen the clip of the tackle once or twice and I don't think I'll be watching it again."
McKinnon, who by now had become engaged to Teigan, added: "There's no point me being angry ... if I'm cranky or I'm angry, I'm not going to be real fun to be around, so that's the way I see it."
Adding to the psychological strain on Newcastle's players was the uncertainty surrounding Tinkler's financial situation. When it was reported, in mid-March, that the monthly wages of players and staff were paid four days late, Knights CEO Matt Gidley dismissed it as "not a huge issue". Harragon told Radio 2HD: "Everyone's contract is all done and dusted and paid. That's a fact."
Matters reached a flashpoint on May 16. After Tinkler's failure to raise the bank guarantee, the NRL had demanded an audit of Newcastle's accounts and were alarmed to discover around $20 million in liabilities. The Knights were effectively insolvent.
Tinkler, however, assured the NRL everything was under control. He was in the process of selling Patinack Farm, which would provide him with $30 million to re-capitalise the Knights. But the next morning, Tinkler was on the phone, asking the NRL for a $600,000 advance to help pay his players and staff.
His audacious request was refused, prompting a Mexican stand-off that left Knights employees waiting for their monthly wages, again. NRL officials immediately issued a statement, confirming the end was nigh: "The actions of the Tinkler-controlled Knights towards players and staff are completely unacceptable ... there is no place in our game for this kind of behaviour."
The Knights later released an emailed statement, quoting HSG chief executive Palmer, which declared: "HSG will ensure any outstanding wages are paid next week and hope the ownership dispute can be resolved immediately so the club can be adequately funded again."
The wages were deposited the following day, May 20, out of the NRL's own coffers.
Tinkler's position was now untenable. A week later, he issued a statement in which he confirmed he was "leaving the club" while simultaneously declaring: "I have done my bit for the town by investing more than $20 million and saving the Knights from liquidation ... the club is in a far better position than it was when HSG took over."
Tinkler denied that the Knights had accrued $20 million in liabilities during HSG's three years at the helm. "The debts of the club are substantially less than the $10.5 million [bank guarantee] which is currently sitting in a bank account and not earning interest," he said.
As for his critics, he could not resist a parting shot: "I cannot understand why the local press simply want to criticise the club, its players and attempt to bring down everything that is great about Newcastle and the Knights."
The prospect of the Knights Members Club buying back Newcastle's franchise for $1 - as decreed by the terms and conditions of the original Tinkler takeover - was vetoed by the NRL because of fears a legal battle would drag on for months.
Instead the governing body negotiated an exit strategy, allowing Tinkler to use about half the $10.52 million bank guarantee to pay liabilities, while retaining $5.1 million to bankroll the club during an indefinite period of interim NRL ownership.
Barely three years after the historic vote to privatise the Knights, Tinkler was gone. While he continued to own the Jets, it was only a matter of time before he was also stripped of that licence, too.
A month later, Bennett announced he would be following Tinkler out the back door, saying he was "extremely disappointed" and "embarrassed" by Newcastle's performances. "The buck stops with me ... I've always accepted that as a coach,'' he said.
So Bennett, who came to Newcastle for "the challenge", decided to bail out just as it appeared the challenge had reached its pinnacle. He soon agreed to rejoin Brisbane, and Knights officials announced Rick Stone would succeed him on a two-year deal.
That left Bennett with a couple of months to salvage some respect, a task he would face without the enigmatic Darius Boyd, who checked into a rehabilitation clinic and missed the final seven games of the season.
In addition, former Cronulla players Kade Snowden and Jeremy Smith accepted ASADA suspensions for the final three games of the year after pleading guilty to taking performance-enhancing "peptides" while at the Sharks in 2011.
In amongst the gloom, a glimmer of hope emerged in the Mata'utia brothers, Sione and Chanel, who debuted together in an upset 16-12 win against the Roosters and played the final seven games of the year, scoring seven and five tries respectively. Before Sione had even made his debut, Bennett was happy to label him a future "great player" and club captain for the Knights.
Two months later, the 18-year-old became the youngest-ever player to represent Australia, appearing in three Tests during the end-of-season Four Nations.
Somehow, despite all they had endured, the Knights managed to win eight of their last 11 games to finish 12th, a performance that Bennett rated alongside any of his seven premiership wins.
"Maybe in my coaching career, it may have been my finest hour this year here," Bennett said after a 40-10 last-round thrashing of the Dragons. "You laugh ... and I know I'm in the results-driven business, but no one knows what we've been through here this year except those that have been part of that action.
"These guys have kept turning up every week under a lot of different situations. And we finished as a team, which was more important to me than anything else."
Hard Yards: The Story of the Newcastle Knights. Available to purchase from theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/ $19.95