It was never a promising season for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
Matthew Gallagher looks at h...
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"The best Wooden Spoon you could ever win".
For any other side that finished bottom of the ladder for the third consecutive year, the despair and resentment among supporters and club staff alike would be devastating. Yet in a world that is unquestionably stranger than fiction, the Newcastle Knights finished 2017 in the knowledge the Red and Blue are on the up to the delight of a supporter base filled with pride in a team destined to usher in the next great era of rugby league in the Hunter.
Having come off a devastating 2016 campaign that saw the side manage a meager win and a draw, hopes were high about avoiding a third straight wooden spoon having recruited seasoned veterans Rory Kostjasyn (North Queensland) and Jamie Buhrer (Manly) from two of the most successful systems of recent years, along with a mixture of journeymen eager to make the most of an opportunity including Josh Starling (Manly), Jacob Gagan (Cronulla), Ken Sio (Hull KR), Anthony Tupou (Wakefield) and Joe Wardle (Huddesfield). Coupled with the further development of the 11 rookies to debut in Nathan Brown's first season as coach, the pre-season was headed in the right direction before a series of unfortunate events befell the club.
During a tumultuous start to the new year, club legend Jarrod Mullen was suspended for testing positive to a banned substance, Pauli Pauli was involved in a car crash that saw the front-rower dislocate his hip, while a freak training accident at training ultimately prevented Rory Kostjasyn from ever pulling on a Knights jersey. Complemented by the club's decision to allow Korbin Sims to join Brisbane immediately, the reality the Knights were faced with meant if they were to get off the bottom, the responsibility would rest upon the shoulders of the club's youth.
Earmarked to tussle with the Dragons for the ignominy of finishing last, the Knights started the season full of enthusiasm to indicate their ‘easy-beats' status was well and truly gone. Going down narrowly in New Zealand in their opening fixture, scenes of ecstasy resonated throughout the Hunter the following week as the resilience to never give up saw the side break their 19-game losing run in front of their long-suffering supporters against the Titans.
Subsequently a series of narrow losses, punctuated by the occasional performance reminiscent of 2016, left Nathan Brown in the unenviable position of forcing a major shakeup. In a selection bombshell, captain Trent Hodkinson was dropped to reserve grade following a 1/7 opening to the season, affording Jaelen Feeney his chance to stake a claim for the Knights playmaking duty. Ultimately the move yielded few tangible benefits for the side, winning just once over the next three months despite frequently leading opponents at halftime.
With several agonising losses drawing the ire of supporters and club officials alike, including a 33-12 humiliation at the hands of the Wests Tigers in front of an ropeable home crowd, fortunes turned at the end of July with a three-game winning run temporarily lifting the side off the bottom of the ladder. A difficult run of matches to finish the year and a rapidly improving Tigers outfit consigned the Knights to a third consecutive 16th placed finish, but with a dramatic improvement upon last year's showing and with a significantly bolstered recruitment strategy in effect for 2018, those within the inner sanctum of the club will be hopeful of an audacious charge towards featuring beyond Round 26 in twelve months time.
In what would have been one of the great upsets of the year, the final five minutes against Canterbury at Belmore painfully proved to be the making of strong finish to the season. Leading by ten with time running out, poor game management saw the Bulldogs steal an undeserved win from the luckless Knights, with teenage playmaker Brock Lamb baring the brunt of unwarranted criticism. Sitting on just two wins heading into the final third of the season, the pain of losing in such tragic circumstances spurred the side on to produce their best form under Nathan Brown, including a run of three consecutive wins over the Dragons, Warriors and top four finalists Parramatta, while also proving a thorn in the side of last year's grand finalists in front of vocal Newcastle supporters. Moving temporarily off the bottom of the ladder after the Eels victory, a similar late season flourish from the Tigers relegated the Knights to a much-improved last-placed finish.
With an average age of 24 and just two players over 30 to feature in first grade, the development of the clubs younger players was instrumental in the improvement made across the board. Boasting an NRL squad in which half the players had featured in two pre-seasons or fewer, the tough lessons of last year paid dividends as the likes of Daniel Safiti, Josh King, Brock Lamb, Jacob Safiti and Lachlan Fitzgibbon all cemented positions within the top 17, with each player regularly among the sides best performers. Likewise, the accomplished transition of Sione Mata'utia from rookie winger to established second-rower earned the Australian and Samoan representative the honour of becoming the club's youngest ever captain following Trent Hodkinson's relegation to ISP midway through the year. While not as young as some of his fellow teammates, Nathan Ross continued to endear himself to supporters throughout the Hunter and abroad with his cult personality and tireless effort resulting in an upgraded contract extension and earning selection for City in the annual NSWRL fixture.
For as much improvement was made by Newcastle's youth, the overreliance on inexperienced players resulted in inconsistent performances. Improving their starts considerably to lead at halftime in half their matches, an inability to finish off opponents saw the Knights go down by six points or less on half a dozen occasions, while second half capitulations against Penrith and St. George Illawarra left supporters remonstrating at the disparity within performances. Ultimately a mid-season halves switch up was abandoned after halfback Jaelen Feeney managed just one win from eight appearances alongside Brock Lamb and Trent Hodkinson, while hopes to use Dylan Phythian as an additional playmaker at fullback lasted less an hour of the season, after the luckless utility re-ruptured his ACL in his starting debut. To accost blame solely on any one player would be misguided, but in breaking down the collective performance of the team over the course of the season, the bottom placed finish aligns with the lack of experience within the squad, however it is imperative to recognise the considerable development made by the playing group overall.
In a side brimming with players developed throughout the Newcastle lower grades, it's only fitting that the stars of first grade are graduates of the pathways put in place to set up a successful future for the club. Handed the responsibility of directing play in the halves, the progression of Brock Lamb from an unknown to dominant playmaker over the course of 12 months was a sight to behold for supporters. Playing a leading role in each of the sides wins, the 20-year-old had his fair share of setbacks, but in the face of adversity his maturity shone through in a sign that alongside Roosters recruit Connor Watson, the Knights will have a halves partnership to rival opponents throughout the league. Additionally, the improvement made by backrower Lachlan Fitzgibbon was remarkable to see, going from an interchange forward who struggled to make the first grade side in 2016 to becoming an attacking force on the Knights right edge. Working his way into the NRL side after spending the first third of the season plying away in reserve grade, Fitzgibbon finished the year with eight tries and a two-year contract as reward for his commitment and dedication to rise to the rigours of professional rugby league.
Continuing on from the youth policy instilled following Nathan Brown's appointment, a further three players were afforded the honour of debuting for the Knights during 2017. Rewarded for strong pre-season form, Luke Yates and Sam Stone played their first matches for the club in the opening round, with each player going on to feature in 19 and 16 matches respectively. Fellow debutant Tyrone Amey made the most of his sole appearance in first grade, coming off the bench on Old Boy's Day after impressing in the side's Intrust Super Premiership squad.
Qualifying for the finals in seventh position, the prior first grade experience of a number of the club's reserve graders proved invaluable as the Knights ended their campaign following a Semi Final loss to the Warriors. Providing a competitive training ground for the NRL side, strong early season form from Lachlan Fitzgibbon paved the way for his ascent to become a regular first grader, while the class of Brendan Elliot and Chanel Mata'utia helped immensely when not required by Nathan Brown. Finishing the season as leading try-scorer with 17 four-pointers, Tom Hughes forged a strong case for an NRL berth in the near future, while fullback Nick Meaney is sure to be on the precipice of a first grade debut given his strong performances.
With another high turnover of players, the Knights Under 20s produced a memorable win over Minor Premiers Cronulla on the final day of the regular season to book a place in the finals. Coming up against Brisbane, the young Knights were unable to claw back a halftime deficit, ultimately going down 30-26 despite a valiant charge in the second half. Among the side's best performers included front rower Pasami Saulo and hooker Tom Starling who spent time with the ISP squad, while Jack Johns continued on the legacy of his father and uncle with several classy touches including a last-second drop goal to sink the Raiders in Canberra.
After a false dawn of better things in 2017, the Knights have shown themselves to be a side well and truly on the rise. Finishing the year strongly, Nathan Brown's philosophy has rung true so far, but coming off-contract at the end of next season, expectations of further improvement will be a bare minimum. Bolstered by the recruitment of young stars and veteran forwards, the Knights have reason to be optimistic and with a supporter base that ranks fourth in crowd attendances across the league, the passion displayed for a successful Newcastle side will be a sight to behold.
based on current signings
1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Nathan Ross
3. Sione Mata'utia (C)
4. Tautau Moga
5. Shaun Kenny-Dowall
6. Connor Watson
7. Brock Lamb
8. Daniel Safiti
9. Danny Levi
10. Jacob Lillyman
11. Aidan Guerra
12. Jamie Buhrer (C)
13. Mitchell Barnett
14. Lachlan Fitzgibbon
15. Slade Griffin
16. Herman Ese'ese
17. Jacob Safiti