Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Knights are building something special.

Newcastle are competitive again. They’ve been able to turn a year from hell into a pre-season of motivation and have rediscovered their spirit within just three rounds of a new NRL campaign. While the Knights’ wobbles and woes are far from over, they are on the right path to return as one of the competition’s flagship clubs. Not the best, not the biggest; but one you can look at and appreciate what they’ve built. Here’s why...

Under head coach Nathan Brown, the Knights have been more than happy to let any name walk out the door if they aren’t committed to the club for the long haul. The Sims’ brothers – arguably two of the best prospective forwards in the game – were virtually handed one-way plane tickets out of the Hunter, so easily their departures seemed. Brown has been open to anyone exploring their options and hasn’t hesitated in granting a release.

This attitude, although risky, has led to a playing group developing who put simply – want to be there. A culture appears to have been created around hard work, team spirit and togetherness which hasn’t been seen in the red and blue jersey for quite some years.

Nathan Ross has been instrumental to the Knights turnaround; always optimistic, a team-player and full of desire.
 While some of the players Brown has let go – like Akuila Uate and Robbie Rochow – have been to free-up salary cap space, the loss of Jarrod Mullen before the start of the season has allowed the Knights to continue their roster rejuvenation.

Indeed, the loss of Mullen signals a complete changing of the guard as he was the last remaining remnant form the back-end of the glory years. The 2017 squad now feels fresh, like a new leaf has been turned over or the next chapter has begun.  

While Mullen’s absence is a big hole to fill and no-one could doubt his commitment to the side, the club are now better positioned to bring some of their young and potentially potent halves through from the lower grades. Brock Lamb and Jack Cogger have both proven they are close to capable week-in week-out NRL players, and in future years – should his talent develop – Jack Johns, son of Matthew, may find a home in Brown’s squad. A tantalizing fantasy that is not out of the realm of possibility.

Furthermore, Mullen’s departure now means Brown can divert future funds across his line-up. Having already secured the services of rising young-gun Kalyn Ponga, Brown and his recruitment staff have shown their intent by openly pursuing a pack-leader in Matt Scott and a flashy outside-back in Jack Bird.

Brown himself has been one of the club’s best signings. The way he handled his first season – which was one of the league’s poorest on record – with an open honesty about his club’s situation, shows his commitment to the long-term rebuild and the faith he has in their plans.

Brown has returned from the Super League much more sure of himself and his methods.
Crucially, Brown has been able to turn his players from perennial losers into a side striving to achieve better performances and hungry for success. Look no further than round two’s inspiring victory over the Titans.

When scoring the match-winning try – his fourth of the season – Knights winger Nathan Ross forewent his desire to perform a backflip, after previously stating he was waiting for such a moment to complete one.

He preferred to adopt a modest celebration with the team as they were swept into the McDonald Jones Stadium fence and into the arms of the Newcastle fans. Ross spoke after the match citing the group mentality the side now possess, and indicated that such a celebration would take the focus off the team and onto an individual.

Ross and his teammates celebrate his try against the Titans in Round 2.
While easy to overlook, don’t under estimate Ross’ actions. They show, along with his knowledge that you’re only as good as your last game, the Knights have become a competitive squad.

Ross, the franchise’s ‘cult-hero’ and his side’s ultimate team-player, had then scored two tries in each of the Knights opening two games this season. His position should have been safer than anyone’s, and after 336 days without a win it’s fair to say Nathan Brown wouldn’t have cared if he finished with a Mundine-esque backflip. But he wasn’t taking his position for granted. That’s the sign of a focussed individual and a committed footballer.

It speaks volumes about the influence of Nathan Brown and the mentality the Knights are working towards. If Brown can spread Ross’ character right through his young side, then Newcastle are headed in only one way.

If what goes up must come down, perhaps for the Knights what goes down is now coming back up. After two wooden-spoons in a row, the sale and collapse of their club, multiple coaches, surprising scandals and a complete overturn of their roster, the Knights are now entrenched in the stability of building the foundations of their castle that once stood high atop the rugby league land.

Give it time, maybe a year or two, maybe more, but Newcastle are becoming a castle again.