Daniel Nichols looks back on the Newcastle Knights season in his ongoing series of season reviews.
Fan Prediction: 5th-6th
Where It Went Right: Supercoach Wayne Bennett almost did it again. A month before the finals, not even the most committed Knights fan would have told you they’d be within 80 minutes of a grand final. After stuttering at times during the season, the Knights came good at the business end of the season, smashing the Broncos and the Eels to secure a top 8 spot that at times looked like it might slip away. The Knights made the most of their finals spot beating the Dogs in front of a big Bulldog home crowd before ending their horrible losing streak in Melbourne to knock the defending champions out. After beating Melbourne in Melbourne, the entire league community started to believe the Knights could land Wayne Bennett yet another premiership.
The so called “Old-Castle” brigade proved the doubters wrong in a huge way. Beau Scott had a great season and was missed dearly during his time out through injury, whilst Willie Mason played at a level that had many predicting a return to representative honours. Jeremy Smith proved yet again why he is so highly regarded in the game, and averaged nearly 30 tackles per game yet again. Even Craig Gower, who was recruited mid season had an important role to play whilst the team’s first grade stars were injured. Another of Newcastle’s recruits, former Rooster’s bad boy Joseph Leilua had a blinder of a season, scoring 13 tries and playing a part in many more. Uate shrugged off the disappointment of missing out on Origin selection by scoring 15 tries. The man who won selection in his place, James McManus was one of NSW’s best, which continued his amazing club form.
Jarrod Mullen was an absolute superstar in the Hunter this campaign. He laid on an incredible 25 try assist and developed a lethal kicking game. His name comes up every year for Origin, and if his form continues into next year, his name will be there yet again. His halves partner, young Tyrone Roberts had a career year and seemed to get better with every game. Darius Boyd looked back to his best after a so-so season in 2012. He laid on 11 tries and was solid as a rock at the back. Broncos discard Dane Gagai looked like an absolute monster at times during the season and will benefit greatly should Mullen, Roberts and Boyd continue in the form they ended their 2013 campaign.
Where It Went Wrong: It’s tough to find too much wrong in a season that ended one game from a grand final performance, but Wayne Bennett will, as always, be looking for improvement from his squad. Injury again robbed Kurt Gidley of a full season and you have to believe if he had been fully fit and firing that the Knights would have been in a better position to challenge the Roosters in the game that ultimately ended their season. Gidley who will be needed at hooker next season following the retirement of Danny Buderus will be hoping for a big off season and a bit of luck on the injury front next year. In the 14 games he did manage this campaign he looked dangerous and made a large number of tackles. His ability to shift into the halves or the backline will be invaluable next season.
Newcastle lost 6 of 7 games in the middle of the season. The run started with a golden point loss to the Sharks and included losses to the Raiders, Warriors and Dragons, all teams Knight’s fans would have expected to win. Newcastle dropped 2 games to the low finishing Dragons in 2013, a stat that would not please former Dragon’s coach Wayne Bennett. Inconsistency is something the side from the Hunter will be looking to overcome in 2014. In the space of a week, Newcastle belted last year’s minor premiers the Bulldogs 44-8, then lost by 16 points to an even more inconsistent Warriors side. Although they came within a win of a grand final, they will want to finish higher than 7th next season and not rely on a late season flury as they did in 2013.
It’s tough to criticise a team’s main half laying on 25 try assist in a season, but with Mullen’s halves partner Roberts second in the count with only 9, it looks as though they’ll again be relying on Mullen to provide next season. To say a team relies on its 5/8 is hardly new however such a difference in tries provided means the Knights may struggle if Mullen is injured, has a drop in form of is off playing Origin. Gidley’s return should provide help and there is no doubt Tyrone Roberts has plenty of improvement in his game after his breakout season in 2013.
Verdict: Very few had Newcastle making a grand final play off in 2013. In fact most thought Smith, Scott and Mason were on their last legs and would do more harm than good. How wrong they were. Newcastle’s season, even a month out from the finals, looked like one that fans would not overly fondly remember, however fast forward a month and Knights fans travelled in busloads to see them face a red hot Roosters side. Newcastle rode a wave of momentum for everything it was worth and have set themselves up for a huge 2014. A young and excellent halves combination, a tough forward pack, and huge, try scoring outside backs, as well as the return of captain Kurt Gidley means Wayne Bennett’s team will be right there or there abouts again next season.