RICK Stone was always a shoo-in.
Toohey's News: Listen to Barry Toohey's new podcast in your Podcast app
When Wayne Bennett announced he was leaving Newcastle at the end of the 2014 season, Knights officials did not have far to look for a successor. Indeed, there were suggestions that they looked no further than Stone, who had spent three years as Bennett's understudy, as well as 54 games (and two play-offs) as head coach between 2009 and 2011.
Newcastle were inundated with expressions of interest from prospective coaches, but Stone held a significant advantage. The three-man selection panel included one of his childhood mates, outgoing chairman Harragon, who had been largely responsible for bringing him to the club as Michael Hagan's deputy in 2005, as well as CEO Matt Gidley and advisor (and future board member) John Quayle.
Logic suggested that Stone would ensure the smoothest transition. He knew the players and he knew Newcastle. He had done a reasonable job, most agreed, in his former incarnation. Bennett, however, was apparently not convinced. Before leaving Newcastle, he referred to the club upon his arrival in late 2011 as "a mess, a basket case in many ways", which hardly reflected well on Stone.
There were rumours that he advised Knights management to search elsewhere for a replacement. He also warned that Newcastle were facing a long-term rebuilding operation. "They've got a plan, and they want to take this club to places it probably hasn't been, but no one's talking about a quick fix," Bennett told the Newcastle Herald.
"No one's talking about it's going to happen in 12 or 18 months. It's going to take four or five years, I've got no doubt about that at all, to get it up to speed and where they want to take it."
Stone disagreed: "I'm confident our team can make the semis ... I'm really excited about how things are shaping up." Optimistic he may have been, but Stone also had a Plan B. "I keep renewing my builder's licence every year, just in case," he admitted, after agreeing to a two-year deal with the Knights for less than half Bennett was reported to have earned.
It was clear that Stone would not boast the same depth of talent that Bennett had at his disposal.
At the end of 2014, Newcastle parted company with Darius Boyd, Willie Mason, Adam Cuthbertson, Timana Tahu, Travis Waddell and Michael Dobson - roughly 900 games of NRL experience. Their only recruits were young Dragons prop Jack Stockwell and Cowboys back-rower Tariq Sims, who would be suspended for the first four games of the season. In addition, two of the hired guns Bennett brought to Newcastle - Beau Scott and BJ Leilua - were making noises about leaving.
Scott had approached Newcastle's management, explaining that he had family reasons for wanting to return to Sydney. The temperamental Leilua had a pre-season clash with Stone over his lack of fitness and, after being threatened with a stint in reserve grade, responded by requesting a release. He was entitled to do so, because of a clause in his contract that gave him the option of leaving if Wayne Bennett was no longer coach. The last thing Stone needed was to lose players of such high calibre.
The coach must have been hopeful, after Newcastle's dream start to the season, that both would consider staying. Successive wins against the Warriors, Cowboys, Titans and Penrith left the Knights on top of the table, the only undefeated team in the NRL. "I think after three games people were still questioning whether we're a fair dinkum team, and we are," skipper Kurt Gidley said after beating the Panthers 24-14. "We believe we are. We've worked hard through the off-season, but as Stoney says, we've been winning these games on defence and covering each other's bums on our goal line ... hopefully after today we start getting a bit of respect, because we are fair dinkum."
A week later, bolstered by the inclusion of Tariq Sims, Newcastle were expected to make it five straight. Instead they were outmuscled 13-0 at home against the Dragons, and before they realised it, their season was spiralling out of control. Four straight defeats followed the loss to the Dragons, including a 28-22 loss to a Parramatta team who included a familiar face - ex-Knights prop Danny Wicks. Jailed for 18 months for drugs supply and banned from the NRL for four years, Wicks made a remarkable comeback for the Eels at the age of 29.
Playing against his former club, he made a try-saving tackle on halfback Tyrone Roberts which helped win the game. "It was a fair week of build-up for me personally, obviously, because I've done the wrong thing in the past," Wicks said after the game. "But it's a really good feeling ... I was looking forward to it, but at the same time I wasn't."
I'm confident our team can make the semis ... I'm really excited about how things are shaping up.RICK STONE
The six former Newcastle teammates he played against, including Chris Houston, may as well have been strangers. Since his arrest almost six years earlier, Wicks had effectively been ostracised by the Knights, a fate he accepted without complaint. "They've had to distance themselves, because of my actions many years ago," he said. "Obviously there's no ill feeling or anything like that."
After scratching out a 22-12 win against struggling Wests Tigers, the Knights lost six more consecutive games and slipped to last on the ladder.
Adding to the doom and gloom, Leilua had been released mid-season to link with Canberra, and Scott announced he would join Parramatta for 2016 and beyond. The final straw for Leilua was an interview with the Newcastle Herald in which he revealed: "Since round one I've been looking for another club ... I've already put in an application to leave." When he added that "I came here to be around Wayne [Bennett], for him to teach me something new, because he's a great coach", it was clear that Stone was wasting his time trying to retain the heavyweight centre.
A 30-2 win at home against the Gold Coast provided some relief, but Newcastle's next opponents - defending champions South Sydney - shaped as a step up in class. The Knights started well, with a try by prop Kade Snowden, but minutes later centre James McManus was helped from the field after suffering a brutal head knock. After 166 NRL games, 72 tries and three Origins, his career was over, although at the time nobody knew it.
Then the floodgates burst open. Souths ran in seven tries before half-time and proceeded to win by a landslide 52-6. Afterwards Stone admitted he was "shellshocked" by a performance he said was not up to first-grade standard. "We've got six or so rounds to go and we've got to play players who are willing to fight," Stone said. "That's the only thing I'm looking for - players who are going to stand up, have some pride in the jumper, and fight their butt off for 80 minutes. That's what you need and, if you can't give me that, I don't want you to play."
Two days later, Stone was sacked with almost 18 months to run on his contract. "This is a difficult decision because Rick's a great man, he cares deeply about the club, he works incredibly hard, and it's difficult to make this decision," Knights CEO Matt Gidley told a media conference. "But if we're going to sit here and talk about building quality teams and world-class teams, we need to keep ourselves accountable to that."
In his first interview after he was sacked, Stone said he felt let down "by a few people I trusted" but admitted that in hindsight, results left him vulnerable. "It's hard to actually put your finger on it," he said. "We did start the season well, but even then we didn't do a lot that was super flash. We played pretty steady but competed really hard, and that effort might have taken a bit of energy out of us.
"But a couple of injuries knocked a bit of confidence out of us, and all of a sudden things started to spiral in the wrong direction. That puts pressure on the coach and the board and the whole club.
"Obviously I'm not comfortable with how things panned out at the end, but when you're head coach, you've got to win some games. That's the crux of the story, really.''
Club legend Danny Buderus, after a season and a half on Newcastle's staff as an assistant coach, was named as a caretaker replacement for Stone, who was soon offered a position on the Roosters' coaching staff, before taking the reins at English Super League club Huddersfield Giants.
After losses to the Dragons and Roosters, Newcastle remained last, but back-to-back away wins against Wests Tigers and Melbourne were enough to climb out of the cellar, albeit briefly. Then followed an emotional 20-18 loss to Canterbury in the penultimate round, after which veterans Kurt Gidley and Clint Newton - who enjoyed two seasons back with the Knights after stints with Melbourne, Hull Kingston Rovers and Penrith - farewelled their home-town fans.
That result left Newcastle facing a simple equation. Win at Penrith and leave the injury-riddled Panthers with the wooden spoon. Lose and take the dreaded utensil back to Newcastle.
At half-time, leading 12-8 in the so-called "spoon bowl", the Knights held the upper hand. Then they produced what club stalwart Tony Butterfield, writing in his Newcastle Herald column, declared was "possibly their worst second half - ever".
The final scoreline of Penrith 30, Newcastle 12, confirmed Gidley's last game before joining Warrington would end in the ultimate indignity. It was a terrible way for the great clubman to bow out, after 251 games in the red and blue.
Afterwards, a disconsolate Gidley could not even bring himself to refer directly to the wooden spoon. "I don't want to really comment on those couple of words," the 33-year-old said. "I don't want them to come out of my mouth, to be honest, because I'd prefer to look back over my whole career, to be honest, rather than this game and this year."
Buderus, in his last game as head coach before handing the reins to former Dragons, Huddersfield and St Helens mentor Nathan Brown, who had accepted a three-year deal, drew on his own experiences as a player, from a decade earlier.
"It's extremely disappointing to finish like that ... but what it does do, it makes you hurt and it makes you more hungry for pre-season training," Buderus said. "I've been on the end of that as a player, and that's what it did for me, and hopefully those guys in there, it's going to hurt and they never let this happen again."
Hard Yards: The Story of the Newcastle Knights. Available to purchase from theherald.mybigcommerce.com/books/ $19.95