SMITHY: What sunk Stone at the Knights (and how to fix it)

Brian Smith Columnist

By Brian Smith, Brian Smith is a Roar Expert

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    To understand Newcastle Knights you need to live in Newcastle.

    On countess occasions during my time in that great place someone would welcome me and tell me how much I would love living there, followed by “it’s the best place in the world”. I would respond with “I have loved every place I have lived in” and followed with “where else have you lived?”.

    Generally it was “nowhere else but Newy”!

    The criteria the Knights board apparently used for appointing the coach following Wayne Bennett had a similar policy line to my welcoming committee. They believed and wanted to get back to someone who understood the Knights fans and their culture so that meant a home grown coach.

    I would like to think Rick Stone would have got that job under any criteria. He has great coaching qualities. First hand I can guarantee that is without a doubt.

    So why did it go so wrong?

    Firstly the thought that Wayne Bennett wasn’t home grown so had lost his talent while in Necastle is absurd. Secondly the club’s two standout coaches, Alan McMahon (inaugural coach) was from Wollongong and later Sydney, and Englishman Malcolm Reilly was the other, and the man who delivered the club’s first premiership.

    Even their other premiership coach Michael Hagen is a Queenslander via the Bulldogs.

    Go figure!

    Rather than any criteria used to select Rick Stone let’s look at what he inherited in his second shot at the position after doing pretty well in his first. Rememberm this is not the Knights team full of stars but:
    – Specifically A. Johns-less
    – A team being rebuilt after losing almost all their stars oven the previous few seasons
    – Changed CEOs multiple times
    – Changed coaches four times
    – Operated on a very skinny budget causing all sorts of debt issues
    – Taken over by a maverick spender with no experience in sport club management

    When Mr Tinkler rang ker-ching, coach Bennett strode into town so coach Stone stepped aside.

    Not much changed in terms of results, but more ker-ching resulted in more veteran players via recruitment. The appointment of a brand spanking new everything possible kept the hope of the promised “three premierships while Wayne is coach” alive.

    That recruitment of veteran players to the Knights on expensive and extended multi-year contracts was the most telling, and something coach Stone is paying for.

    Please, people wondering what has gone wrong, give coach Bennett some credit.

    He left Brisbane when they no longer had stars dripping from the chandeliers, he left the Dragons after they had recruited similarly to the Knights – expensive vets with extended multi-year contracts to get them in – and left when it was not looking so flash for the future.

    Steve Price paid a real price as that salary cap bit and is still munching on the bone of a club with ongoing difficulties in that department. Wayne is no dummy.

    But it’s not all about Wayne, at least not in Newcastle’s case.

    The Knights had their most productive time from 1995 until the mid-2000s. They won two comps, and in Andrew Johns words to me “we should have won five”. I agree completely, such was their talent pool. They also should have set their club up forever.

    The success was largely based on young, home-grown players but the work, for that talented crew to become that wonderfully skilful team was done in the late 80s and early 90s when David Waite and Peter Sharp, and many other tremendous developers of footy talent, built the base.

    They laid the foundations and ultimately reaped the rewards with bucket loads of young blokes busting their gut to represent their local club. So many they filtered everywhere across the footy landscape – every NRL team had at least one and some had a few.

    So somewhere way back in that golden period someone, or a group of them, went to sleep at the wheel. There was a lot of partying in that decade from 1995. The phrase “everyone in Newcastle was dining out on A. Johns’ credit card” was coined by someone who did the most dining I believe.

    So where to now for the Knights? What path do the decision makers follow from here?

    If they listen to those highly parochial fans who know that Newcastle is the best place in the world and want the home-grown days to return, they will need to do one of two things.

    Either mount a very strong PR campaign to explain why that can’t happen (and throw in their resignations very soon after) or start the process of development of locally-grown players only (and batten down the hatches while the team loses for some seasons to come – those resignations will still be needed).

    As a city and proud sporting region, Newcastle itself needs to take a look at the rest of the world of pro sport.

    They will need to search hard to find a winning franchise with a locally grown-only philosophy. And an independent internal study will show they probably don’t have that same depth of talent that those pioneer Knights coaches had to get the whole winning thing going way back, when they were the most admired team in the world of rugby league.

    Newcastle and the Hunter is a terrific place, but as I have found out having lived in 33 different houses in my life and enjoyed every place I have ever resided in, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    But the winning scoreboard at your home ground, whereever it may be, is the most wonderful sight of all.

    Brian Smith
    Brian Smith

    Brian Smith is a former player with St. George and South Sydney and first grade coach at Illawarra, St. George Dragons, Bradford Bulls, Parramatta, the Knights and the Roosters. He has taken teams to the NRL Grand Final on four occasions. He is a weekly columnist on The Roar, but to read more of his writing on rugby league, check out his website, Smithy Speaks.

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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • July 30th 2015 @ 9:17am
      Slim said | July 30th 2015 @ 9:17am | ! Report

      Great article Brian. Newy have a definite dad’s army look. Not interested in getting a half for about ten years, till now. Totally lost their style of play and shape, to a non-style of play. Hope they start a new era next season.

    • July 30th 2015 @ 9:41am
      PGNEWC said | July 30th 2015 @ 9:41am | ! Report

      Brians comments are sort of half true — yes there is a parochial set in Newie but I think you can find that element everywhere. I have met Brisbane Canberra Parramatta and Canterbury people with the same mind set — the difference is these type of people tend not to run football clubs — unfortunately I concede in Newie this has not always been the the clique has always been there.

      However there are other Novocastrians who are hard working somber no nonsense type of people that follow the knights religiously and deserve better.

    • July 30th 2015 @ 10:04am
      fazed said | July 30th 2015 @ 10:04am | ! Report

      I don’t disagree with much of what Smithy is saying after boarding in NCLE for a short period of time, living in Maitland, working into Ncle on too many occasions that I can remember, now living around half way between Sydney & NCLE, & two of our Adult children living there & I had to option to retire there, thankfully I didn’t, & what has struck me over those years is very phsychi that Brian speaks of has & still does exist there.

      They have a great footy team, & great support base, but they also like many other teams, have poor losers as fans What the differnce is though is the NCLE siege mentality that permeated many rural towns & locations that you are not a local untill you have been there permanetly for at least 15 years, tolerated up to 10 years if you do not go out of the towns built up area, then a veneer of accepance for another 5, & then the accepetance comes at an arms length, after all you are no more than a tourist until then.

      The footy team is their crutch, so do not touch as its held up at a rigid vertical elevation & do not bump it.

    • July 30th 2015 @ 11:10am
      Gregg said | July 30th 2015 @ 11:10am | ! Report

      As a vintage Roosters supporter I’ve seen Phil Gould and Graham Murray in partnership with front office developed our club from the bottom up and for Ricky Stuart to get the benefits….Then it was your partnership with the club that and recruitment of Peter O’Sullivan
      has got to where the Roosters are today. Some of the best coaches don’t get the fruit that they have planted.

      Do you really love living in Wakefield ?

    • Roar Rookie

      July 30th 2015 @ 11:23am
      Don said | July 30th 2015 @ 11:23am | ! Report

      Geez Brian. I usually like your stuff but the swipes at Bennett can’t be ignored and believe me I’m no Bennett apologist.

      You say; “He left Brisbane when they no longer had stars dripping from the chandeliers, he left the Dragons after they had recruited similarly to the Knights – expensive vets with extended multi-year contracts to get them in – and left when it was not looking so flash for the future.
      Steve Price paid a real price as that salary cap bit and is still munching on the bone of a club with ongoing difficulties in that department. Wayne is no dummy.”

      When he announced he was going to St George in March 2008 his Brisbane squad had these players; Darius Boyd, Tonie Carroll, Joel Clinton, Greg Eastwood, Michael Ennis, Ben Hannant, Justin Hodges, Josh Hoffman, Karmichael Hunt, Darren Lockyer, Corey Parker, Ashton Simms, David Stagg, Dave Taylor, Sam Thaiday, Peter Wallace. Plus plenty of solid first graders. 15 of those I listed had played either SOO or played test footy or both…

      Hardly “no longer had stars dripping…”
      The fact that AFTER Bennett announced he was leaving 8 first graders also started looking outside is not Bennett’s fault.

      Then the St George angle where Steve Price paid for Bennett’s left overs.

      When Bennett joined St George he recruited guys like: Jeremy Smith, Darius Boyd, Neville Costigan, Luke Priddis, Michael Weyman, Mathew Head, Mickey Paea, Wendell Sailor, Luke Priddis, Neville Costigan and Nick Emmett.

      Bennett left at the end of 2011. The squad for 2012 included; Cooper, Creagh, DeBellin, Gower, Hornby, Hunt, Merrin, B Morris, Nightingale, Prior, Rein, Beau Scott, Soward, Weyman, Vidot and Dean Young.

      Gone were J Smith, Boyd, Costigan, Head, Priddis, Sailor and Emmett. So where are the ageing / Bennett aligned players Bennett signed that were the millstones around Price’s neck?

      Price was a dud coach who couldn’t get the best from the team. Soward is a prime example.

      Same with Newcastle now. They still have a good squad. There is an underlying problem at Newcastle in their management plus they have just gone through 2 years of turmoil with Tinkler’s intrusion and Alex McKinnon’s injury. And maybe their coach wasn’t of first grade standard? Also, guys who Bennett bought to Newcastle like Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott were among the best players last year.

      Then Bennett returns to Brisbane. Brings in Darius Boyd and an unwanted Adam Blair (Milford was already signed.)
      They are sitting top of the table and playing footy no one expected of them. This side has fewer stars than the 2008 squad you are saying was no longer dripping stars from the chandeliers… And I am definitely not a Broncos fan.

      Oh, and if a coach doesn’t want a player who is still contracted they can always do a trade and move them on. Ben Barba to Cronulla, Michael Jennings to Easts, Adam Blair to the Broncos… are good examples. Why didn’t St George do anything?

      Some of your other points about the Newcastle problems outside of the Wayne blame are valid.

    • July 30th 2015 @ 11:45am
      NQ Cowboy said | July 30th 2015 @ 11:45am | ! Report

      Well said Don. I was thinking the same thing but I couldn’t articulate it as well as you have done. Sorry Brian but those grapes are still a little sour. Your attack on Bennett has ruined what could’ve been an insightful piece on the unique circumstances of coaching in Newcastle.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 30th 2015 @ 11:54am
        Don said | July 30th 2015 @ 11:54am | ! Report

        Cheers. I’m home with a busted knee and didn’t realise how long my comments were…
        I’ve seen this myth floated way too often to let it pass again while I had time to respond.

        • Roar Guru

          July 30th 2015 @ 12:28pm
          Jason Hosken said | July 30th 2015 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

          Brilliant – top footy credentials and passion to boot. Rate it!

        • Roar Guru

          July 30th 2015 @ 12:29pm
          Jason Hosken said | July 30th 2015 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

          hey Don..will your knee be right for the finals 🙂

          • Roar Rookie

            July 30th 2015 @ 12:45pm
            Don said | July 30th 2015 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

            Mate 15 years retired now and this is my 4th knee operation and the 3rd on this knee. This time did it surfing.

            Intensive rehab has started though. I need to get my walking to the beer fridge and the loo times down so I don’t miss any footy.

            • Roar Guru

              July 30th 2015 @ 1:10pm
              Jason Hosken said | July 30th 2015 @ 1:10pm | ! Report

              Mate, you gotta stay out of the surf – looks like a jungle. Good luck with the recovery.

            • Editor

              July 30th 2015 @ 3:44pm
              Patrick Effeney said | July 30th 2015 @ 3:44pm | ! Report

              You should write articles Don!

              • Roar Rookie

                July 30th 2015 @ 4:08pm
                Don said | July 30th 2015 @ 4:08pm | ! Report

                To be honest Patty I almost deleted my comments when I saw how long they were.
                I really admire the guys that write on this site like Brett, Harry, BB, Digger, Sheek, Alanthus and others on the Rugby page in particular.

                And as I said, I normally like Brian’s stuff as well. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach. Wish he had got that elusive premiership when he was at the Eels…

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