Is the hype surrounding Newcastle justified?

When you think of the Newcastle Knights, what comes to mind? If you’ve been following the team for any length of time, you’d probably be inclined to talk about the premiership the club won back in 1997, when Rugby League in Australia was in the grips of war, and again four years later, when one of the game’s greatest halfbacks helped the Knights defeat a highly fancied Parramatta side. If not these, you’d reminisce about the champion players that passed through the club during its glory days, Sunday afternoons spent at Hunter Stadium, the grand final parades, and the turbulence of the Tinkler era that brought with it so much uncertainty.

Things of late have begun to distort the image Newcastle once worked hard to build. Instead of talking about the supreme skills of Johns and Buderus, fans are lamenting the sorry state of a once famous and highly successful club that has lost its aura. Over the last five years Newcastle have won three spoons and failed to qualify for finals. Add to this that all three were won across the seasons of 2015, 2016 and 2017, and you begin to gauge exactly where the club currently stands.

2018 is filled with hope, though. For the first time in the last few years the Knights have a realistic chance of making the top eight. Mitchell Pearce, one of the most polarizing figures in NSW rugby league, joins the club from the Roosters – a side that knows what it takes to play finals football and does so routinely.

Even more exciting for Knights fans is the arrival of Kalyn Ponga. The young fullback may only have a handful of first-grade games under his belt, but he showed signs of great skill and maturity during his time at the Cowboys. The only question that remains now is whether he can deliver on the potential that the Knights saw in him when they sat down to table a deal. A contract worth in excess of a million dollars can often be more of a curse than a blessing for young players who arrive at a club with the expectation of helping deliver a premiership.

The Knights have also improved their depth through the signings of Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington, Slade Griffin, Jacob Lillyman and Herman Ese’ese. All are quality players who have been a part of highly successful clubs previously. And all will bring a bit of extra experience to the club that will help in the development of rising stars like the Saifiti brothers, Sione Mata’utia, Danny Levi and the powerful Mitch Barnett.

Take Heighington for example. Not two years ago he was a part of the Cronulla side that won the premiership. At the end of last year he came off the bench in the Rugby League World Cup final for England. Playing wise, Heighington’s days are numbered. But you sense he has been brought to the club for more than just what he can deliver on the playing field; his role is to nurture the young Knights forwards and help them realize what it takes to win a premiership.

This won’t be the season Newcastle go all the way – let’s get this straight. It mightn’t even be the year they make the top eight. But it is the beginning of a new era for the Knights. Their premiership window has been brought forward considerably thanks to the work of the management and coaching staff behind a successful off-season recruitment drive.

No longer is Newcastle merely there to make up the numbers. They’re a genuine threat. And I dare say a number of teams this season will fear coming up against them. Forget about easy beats. The Knights are an unknown quantity with a point to prove and for that reason they will cause a number of upsets this season.

This new look side can restore faith in the long-time fans that have begun to drift away from the Hunter and forget about the joy football can bring. They can rediscover the style of football that saw the Newcastle Knights become one of the most popular Australian sporting brands during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Johns and Buderus are now nothing more than a distant memory, but the mark they left on the club will withstand the test of time. We may never see the Knights return to the lofty heights set by these two ever again – certainly not for some time yet, anyway. But they, and many others, will be forever known as the architects of a club that inspired an entire generation of rugby league fans from a working-class town.

Growing up during the mid 2000’s, receiving my Rugby League education from Channel 9, much was said about the Newcastle Knights. They were the poster boys of the NRL and the most discussed side on television and in the newspapers. As a Dragons supporter, they were the one side you respected. That respect began to fade away shortly after Johns, Buderus, Gidley, Harragon and MacDougall retired.

I feel the club is on the cusp of returning to those good old days. If they do, the competition, and rugby league in general, will be better for it.

For the first time in a long time, Newcastle fans have a right to feel excited about the future.

NSW must adjust their attitude if they are to change their Origin fortunes

There is a sense of what could have been about this Origin series for New South Wales.

After game one they were heavy favourites having outplayed a Queensland side that was on the verge of being forced to make the largest number of personnel changes since the start of their dynasty.

The first half of game two told a similar story – NSW was dominant, Queensland slow, wasteful and sloppy.

But from that point forward, the professionalism of the Queensland side, their desire to win, and ability to play through adversity on and off the field shone through to deliver one of the finest series victories in recent memory.

Unlike previous years, they had to overcome injuries to three members of the old firm, speculation that rifts between coach Walters and the selection panel were beginning to form, and claw their way back from one-nil down in the series following a humiliating defeat at the cauldron in game one.

Then there were the subplots – Slater left out of game one and the in-form DCE snubbed in favour of Ben Hunt, who had been playing reserve grade for Ipswich just weeks earlier following speculation that he was on the outer with coach Bennett and the Brisbane Broncos.

And what about the NSW fans lapping up the selections of Glasby, the forward nobody had heard of, and Coen Hess, the boy who was ‘too soft’ and unprepared for Origin.

Easy victory they said.

The series was there for the taking, and NSW, for the millionth time, squandered the opportunity. That is why the efforts of Queensland’s players should not be underappreciated. For so many reasons, this will go down as the finest series victory in their 12 years of dominance.

Knowing this, heads must roll in NSW camp.

Mitchell Pearce has been given more opportunities than an incompetent law intern who has cost his firm millions of dollars in reparation and must now be told his time is up.

So often he has been the fall guy for NSW’s failures even when their forwards are really to blame for a poor performance.

But his record is abysmal for a player who has more Origin caps than legends like Peter Sterling and Ricky Stuart.

Good player or not, he hasn’t shown he is capable at Origin level and if NSW gives him one last opportunity next year it will be to the detriment of the side who, like a derelict apartment building, are in desperate need of an overhaul.

The difficulty for NSW selectors will be deciding who to replace him with.

There are plenty of talented young halfbacks waiting in the wings but talent doesn’t make an Origin player.

If NSW haven’t learnt this lesson after watching Pearce play 18 Origin matches with a lowly win percentage of 28, then they should prepare themselves for another 5 years of disappointment.

Club form is often a deceiving barometer of a player’s ability.

If we work on this principle, many of those young NSW halves tearing up the NRL will not make the grade.

The NSW selectors must also decide what to do with the likes of Woods, Graham, Hayne and even Peats who have shown glimpses across their respective careers but have failed to deliver in the same consistent fashion as their Queensland counterparts.

The same question must be asked: who replaces them.

Farah was dropped by Laurie and his advisors earlier this year and is little hope of ever returning, meaning the selectors must dip their toe in the pond of youth and draft in a McInnes, otherwise they will be stuck with a player like Peter Wallace who is prone to injury and, much like Farah, is past his best.

In the forwards, the Blues are blessed with talent, but in true NSW fashion, are at sixes-and-sevens when deciding who to pick and what combination to run with.

Vaughan was the form prop around the time the first Origin sides were picked but was omitted when it looked like he was a certain starter.

The same goes for the likes of Tom Trebojevic and Dylan Walker who have shown they are in the kind of form that warrants Origin selection, yet were left out in favour of players like the overhyped and now overrated Jarryd Hayne and Blake Ferguson, who has run in off his wing more than NSW has lost games in the last 12 years.

A bit of reshuffling would’ve seen them squeeze into the side quite easily, even if it meant Trbojevic had to play on a wing and Walker at left centre.

Queensland did it with Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster in game three and it worked to good effect.

But do NSW have the brains or even the courage to make what might seem like bold positional and personnel changes?

Probably not, but sticking to what hasn’t worked for eleven of the past twelve years is the definition of insanity and will result in more heartbreak for NSW fans.

Each and every loss across twelve unsatisfying years hasn’t been met with the appropriate changes.

Mind boggling decision after mind boggling decision has rendered NSW’s past three Origin campaigns hopeless and shown why they are one of the most laughable outfits in Australian sport.

If they don’t give a handful of players their marching orders next season then they will completely lose touch with what it takes to win Origin.

This includes the coach, as likeable as he is. Some have said calls for his head are ludicrous given he has had just five cracks at the job, but Origin is result driven and Laurie hasn’t been able to shape the players at his disposal into a unit that can challenge the might of Queensland’s legends.

Maybe that says more about the selectors than it does Laurie himself but he cannot dodge the blame any longer. It’s time someone else is given the opportunity.

Whether that is someone with the passion of an Andrew Johns or a Brad Filter, or the wisdom of a Gus Gould, is unimportant. What NSW require is someone with football smarts and a will to change the players’ attitude.

Because on Wednesday night it was attitude that once again won it for a Queensland side that knows they have it in them to beat whatever NSW throw at them.

Their comeback in Origin two, where they came from ten points behind to send the series to a decider, was possible because they have done it all before.

When NSW play from behind they look a defeated bunch who have given in to the inevitability of a loss.

James Maloney can claim NSW’s best football is capable of defeating Queensland’s but when have they shown this is the case outside of this year’s first game?

Change that attitude and the make-up of the side and maybe NSW might witness a change in fortunes.