KNIGHTS chief executive Philip Gardner says 2023 deserves to be remembered as one of the club's most successful seasons, but he is also adamant that it is only a step towards their ultimate destination.
Newcastle bowed out in week two of the NRL play-offs after a 40-10 loss to the Warriors in Auckland on Saturday, which ended a memorable 10-game winning streak that secured fifth rung on the competition ladder and the club's first home final in 17 years.
Their regular-season haul of 14 wins and a draw from 24 games was their best since 2002, and their 30-28 triumph against Canberra in the opening round of the play-offs was their first win in a final since 2013.
In the process, the Knights finished the season with three consecutive sell-out crowds at McDonald Jones Stadium and an average home-ground attendance (21,342) that ranks as the third-best since the club was founded in 1988.
In addition, Newcastle's Harold Matthews (under-16) and SG Ball (under-18) teams made their respective grand finals, and their NRLW team - the defending champions - have wrapped up the minor premiership and a home semi-final against Brisbane on Sunday.
Six years after the Wests Group assumed ownership of the Knights, Newcastle's rugby league flagship appears in healthy shape, on and off the field, and Gardner already has his sights set on the next level.
"When you take our pathways and women's teams into account, and then the men winning 10 games in a row, I think it rates up there as one of the best seasons in the club's history, behind the two premiership-winning years," Gardner told the Newcastle Herald.
"There's reasons for all of us to be proud of what we've achieved this year, but we've got to double down.
"We still haven't achieved what we want to achieve, which is to win a premiership.
"And over the next three or four years, hopefully this club will be in a premiership window.
"We've got to recruit well, strengthen our depth a bit, and [coach] Adam [O'Brien] and his staff have to weld them into a team capable of winning a grand final."
Since the advent of the eight-team play-off system, no team has won from outside the top four, which ensures both a second chance and home-ground advantage in at least one play-off.
"The next step will be to become a top-four club next year," Gardner said.
"I think history shows that you have to do that, just because of the attrition rate in the finals."
While minor premiers Penrith and second-placed Brisbane head into their preliminary finals after earning the luxury of week off, the Knights lost three key players - Jackson Hastings, Daniel Saifiti and Lachlan Fitzgibbon - to injuries after their brutal extra-time win against the Raiders.
"In hindsight, there probably wasn't a lot of energy left in the team by the time they played the Warriors," Gardner said.
"We were already down in troops, in particular Jackson Hastings, and it was the sort of game where we copped more injuries and also lost Kurt Mann to a HIA.
"By the time we got to the final in Auckland, the players were almost physically done.
"We had our two byes in the middle of the year, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to rest players at the back end.
"Next year I'm hoping we'll have a deeper squad and we get a bit of luck with regards to our byes."
Gardner was delighted that the Knights were able to win 10 home games this season, including the final, after managing only two victories in their own backyard last year.
"That's been one of our main goals since we took the club on, to host a home semi-final," Gardner said.
"That's something the club hadn't done since 2006.
"It's taken us a bit longer than we thought to achieve it, but it's all been part of the learning curve. The boys now know what it takes to win in the finals, and they have to grow from there."
Gardner plans to meet with O'Brien in the near future to discuss extending his contract, which at this point runs until the end of next season.
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