New season, new team, Newcastle: Splurge spells trouble for junior development

Tom Rock Columnist

By Tom Rock, Tom Rock is a Roar Expert

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    Knights coach Nathan Brown. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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    What a magical start to the season for the Newcastle Knights.

    In front of a throbbing crowd of over 23,000 expectant Novocastrians, the Knights kicked off their 2018 campaign in fairy-tale fashion.

    With only moments remaining in golden point extra time and with the contest in the balance, it felt fitting that the ball should find its way to Newcastle’s greatest import since Harry’s Cafe de Wheels – Mitchell Pearce.

    The captain calmly slotted the winning field goal, and was quickly enveloped by a joyous sea of red and blue. The sight of grown men throwing themselves at Pearce like they were auditioning for Australian Spartan was a special moment for the club and for a fan-base that’s been starved of success in recent seasons.

    But in between the tears of joy and texts from overexcited friends, one thought kept niggling away in the back of my mind – it should have been Brock Lamb taking that field goal. After enduring season after season of misery, it should’ve been Lamb winning that game and celebrating that moment with his teammates.

    Unfortunately, the Knights couldn’t sit back and allow their Lamb to rest for any longer. They needed a halfback capable of owning those key moments, and Brock simply wasn’t there yet. And he’s not alone. A quick check of Newcastle’s Round 1 line-up in 2017 reveals that only six players from that squad made the Knights top 17 for their opening round encounter against Manly on Friday evening.

    When Nathan Brown was first announced as the new coach, he promised to rebuild the club by utilising the region’s rich junior catchment. During his introductory press conference, Brown said:

    “The big key is to build from the bottom up and introduce some good young players… Hopefully over three years’ time we gain some consistency and have got a squad that’s consistent and a good young squad that’s built up with a good portion of local players and also some people from outside.”

    So what’s changed? After investing three long years into developing local talent, why have the Knights seemingly abandoned their strategy?

    Newcastle Knights

    (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

    The reality is that this approach is no longer viable in the modern game. Unlike the early ’90s, when teams like the Canberra Raiders and Brisbane Broncos could stockpile talent like Manchester City, the NRL salary cap is simply not equipped to reward teams for developing their own players.

    You see it all the time – a team invests years’ worth of time, energy and resources in nurturing a young player and bringing him through the junior grades, only to see a cashed-up club like the Roosters swoop in and steal him away.

    So why should clubs bother in the first place?

    That seems to be the general sentiment throughout the NRL, with more and more clubs forgoing significant investment in this area. Newcastle certainly aren’t the only club to abandon the home-grown approach. Junior development was the cornerstone of Phil Gould’s five-year plan at Penrith, the general manager vowing to “overhaul a system that failed to take advantage of the biggest rugby league nursery in the country”.

    For the first few years, Gus held firm to his word. He blooded fresh talent left and right, and was rewarded with some promising results. But over the last 18 months, the Panthers have strayed from this path.

    The club has been more and more active in the player market, and with the release of high-profile juniors Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright, the bulk of Penrith’s salary cap is now allocated to players born and bred beyond the Blue Mountains.

    It was the same story at the Wests Tigers. For years the club stood behind its junior development policy, and in James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks and Aaron Woods, the proof was in the pudding. But when it came time for the Big Four to recommit to the club, the players bolted for greener pastures while the Tigers’ cheese was left out in the wind. As a result, the Tigers were among the most active participants in the player market over the off-season.

    (Photo: AAP)

    And how about the Canberra Raiders? For years the Green Machine have proudly proclaimed themselves as a junior development club, yet a quick look at their roster shows more foreign talent than a Friday night at Scruffy Murphy’s. The truth is that Canberra invested heavily in their junior system only to watch the likes of Josh Dugan, Anthony Milford, Joel Monaghan and William Zillman take up opportunities elsewhere.

    So while it hurts to see home-grown talent like Danny Levi, Brock Lamb and the Saifiti twins no longer in the starting line-up, that’s life in today’s NRL. There’s simply no incentive for developing young players when you can just as easily save your money and poach them from your rivals.

    Nathan Brown and the Knights must do whatever it takes to be successful, even if that means breaking a few promises along the way. And based on what I witnessed against the Sea Eagles on Friday night, the club’s finally on the right track. I only wish it hadn’t taken them three consecutive wooden spoons to get there.

    Fifth Tackle Option
    Here are five quick thoughts on the action from Round 1.

    1. There’s really no excuse for the epidemic of handling errors on display over the weekend. I understand that it’s Round 1 and players need to build up their match fitness, but these blokes have been in pre-season training since Christmas. Not good enough.

    2. The performances of Moses Mbye and Cameron Munster were simply breathtaking. The opposing fullbacks were electric every time they touched the football. It’s not often that Josh Jackson is found wanting in defence, but Munster made the Canterbury captain look like a blue and white version of James Maloney on more than one occasion.

    3. Calm down Roosters fans. Even Jordan Spieth shanks his tee shots occasionally.

    4. Not sure what to make of that performance by Parramatta. The Eels exploded out of the blocks and looked poised to rack up a cricket score against the Panthers. But then a combination of ill-discipline and basic handling errors invited Penrith back into the contest. Parramatta have a cracking squad this season, but these sort of mental lapses are what sets the Eels apart from the top teams like the Melbourne Storm.

    5. Good on Stephen Kearney. His side has copped an absolute pasting from the media this off-season, with most believing they’re destined for the wooden spoon. But if the Warriors can keep up the form they showed South Sydney, they’re an outside chance of pushing for a top-eight berth. I hope Kearney gets a chance to sit back and enjoy the moment.

    Tom Rock
    Tom Rock

    A fair-weather Newcastle Knights fan, Tom doesn't leave anything on the field. He always gives 110% and never forgets to give full credit to the boys. But in a game of two halves, it's important not to look too far ahead, so Tom's just taking it one week at a time. Follow him on Twitter @_TomRock_.

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    The Crowd Says (72)

    • March 13th 2018 @ 9:23am
      BA Sports said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:23am | ! Report

      From Penrith’s starting 17 in Rd 1 – only four players (Peach, Merrin, Maloney, Tamou) are not either Penrith Juniors or didn’t come through the u/20’s system at Penrith. Of those who are not Penrith Juniors they are all from regional NSW or regional New Zealand. These guys have to play somewhere? Bellingen and Dubbo can’t have an NRL club (though some expansionists probably think there are enough players for it)..

      Newcastle had literally nothing left in player stocks. I think Brown has developed juniors into fringe first graders but the club needed to start winning or the kids in the area will stop caring. With the club now in a position to support a handful of quality players with the juniors that have been developed – I think the moves they have made have been the best moves for the club and the game in the region before league lost relevance in the Hunter.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2018 @ 9:29am
        Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        Three of those four Penrith blokes (Merrin, Maloney and Tamou) would be the three highest paid players on their roster. So yes they have furnished the back end of their roster with local talent from their under 20’s teams, but those local juniors aren’t the ones getting the big dollars.

        Agree with you about Brown needing to win now. But the big question I have is why did it take 3 years? If developing juniors was only ever going to produce fringe first graders, then their strategy should have been to target established players from the start. I understand their salary cap was in a world of pain, but no other club in the NRL era has taken this long to get back on track.

        • March 13th 2018 @ 11:09am
          Beastie said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:09am | ! Report

          The biggest problem the Knights have faced recently is the lack of experienced players actually wanting to play for the Knights. Brown has looked at securing a lot of experience in the team now that can help guide those fringe first graders into fully fledged NRL quality.
          By the time Lillyman, Guerra, Heighington etc retire, they would have given the young blokes behind them ample time to learn their trade under experienced players and take the reigns as quality NRL players.

          • March 13th 2018 @ 11:56am
            Kangajets said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:56am | ! Report


            I think it’s worth an article on junior sport in Newcastle, the four codes of league , soccer , afl and union all have substantial juniors now , so the talent pool is being pulled in all directions .

            It’s certainly not just a league crazy city anymore, but undoubtedly the knights are the flagship for the city , I wouldn’t say rugby league is that healthy below the nrl team in newy .

          • Columnist

            March 13th 2018 @ 11:58am
            Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:58am | ! Report

            That’s if they can keep the young blokes. Jack Cogger has already left, and Brock Lamb must be looking. Manly are still a chance of pinching him. And if guys like the Saifiti twins, Sam Stone, ect aren’t getting a look in on game day, they’re managers will be searching for a better gig.

            • March 13th 2018 @ 12:10pm
              Beastie said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:10pm | ! Report

              That is true, but as they say you can’t keep them all. I think the Saifiti boys will be looked after as they will form a lethal combo when they hit their mid 20’s, and I’ve got a feeling that Brock Lamb will be playing in the starting squad this year at 5/8 and will also be looked after as a long term successor to Pearce. Guys like Stone and Yates will be around the top grade squad, but they are still quite young and could flourish under the experience of a winning team, or could hit their peak early and not quite make the step up to a first grade regular.
              Every team in the NRL has players they would like to keep as depth players but can’t keep them due to options at other clubs. It is the nature of the salary cap. The Knights just have to make sure they manage to keep as many of the best ones that they can.

              • Columnist

                March 13th 2018 @ 12:23pm
                Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

                Pearce has another 6-7 years left in him. No chance Lamb will be his long-term replacement. Brock’s only chance of making this Newcastle side is if Watson starts to falter, and Nathan Brown switches him out. But if that doesn’t happen at all this season, Lamb will be a goner.

              • March 13th 2018 @ 12:34pm
                Beastie said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:34pm | ! Report

                Pearce is 28 and Lamb is 21. Pearce retires in 6 years at 34 and hands the reigns over to a play maker coming into his prime years at 27 is a pretty good prospect for mine. Then Lamb has another 6-7 years (barring any career ending injuries) and we are looking at handing over to the next in line.
                As for Lamb playing this year, time will tell…

        • March 13th 2018 @ 11:57am
          BA Sports said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:57am | ! Report

          The benefit of developing local juniors is you sign them on less money for longer terms, Then as we know it becomes harder to keep them when they have the potential to earn bigger money. So when Mansour gets offers of big money.. or you could bring up Christian Crichton or Daniel Brown – local juniors with a tonne of talent – for a lot less, you have a choice. There is a point where Mansour isn’t worth the money he wants (to Penrith) because they have the quality, which they have developed in their nursery, to replace him. Where as with local junior Nathan Cleary they will ultimately be willing to spend the money on because they won’t have his talent in the nursery to replace him.

          • Columnist

            March 13th 2018 @ 12:00pm
            Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:00pm | ! Report

            It’s a messy and complicated process. No wonder Gus Gould looks like he’s aged thirty years in the last 18 months.

            • Roar Guru

              March 13th 2018 @ 12:36pm
              spruce moose said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:36pm | ! Report

              Is it that, or does he just keep changing his hair dye?

              • Columnist

                March 13th 2018 @ 12:46pm
                Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:46pm | ! Report

                I was a fan of the natural, grey look. Kind of looked like one of those people who had seen something really scary (probably James Tamou’s annual salary), and their hair went white out of shock.

            • March 13th 2018 @ 12:49pm
              BA Sports said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

              He looks like he hasn’t slept since 1967…

        • March 13th 2018 @ 7:19pm
          Knight Vision said | March 13th 2018 @ 7:19pm | ! Report

          it took Brown 3 years to clear up the salary cap mess left by Bennett. ( Uate was on 500 K a year ffs ) The players he’s developed will anything but ” fringe first graders” in the next year or so. Siafiti twins could be anything – Dan is already one of the top up and coming prospects in the game, Levi is the current NZ rake, Lamb has a bright future, Sione will flourish, (Cogger is off to the Bulldogs) , Fitzgibbon is another developed by Brown and there is a host of young players coming through the junior ranks that will no doubt attract plenty of attention from junior talent scouts. Some are very special players who if they live to their potential will be house hold names in a few years. ( Levi is possibly not the best young rake at the club with the brightest future )

          You’r right about the poaching of players from wealthy clubs such as the Roosters, they get them quite young from our junior systems ( Boyd Cordener ) The problem of the past hasnt been development as much as identifying and retention.

          One thing is for sure with the abundance of young talent coming through and combing it with the right imports the Knights are about to enter a golden age in the next few years

          • March 14th 2018 @ 8:17am
            Noel said | March 14th 2018 @ 8:17am | ! Report

            Was it Bennett that signed Uate? I thought it was Stone. Genuine query.

            • March 14th 2018 @ 8:42am
              BA Sports said | March 14th 2018 @ 8:42am | ! Report

              Bennett was HC when Uate re-signed in 2013 for 4 years.

              • March 14th 2018 @ 10:46am
                Noel said | March 14th 2018 @ 10:46am | ! Report


    • Roar Rookie

      March 13th 2018 @ 9:29am
      Dirk Diggler said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      Good article Rocket, it was certainly nice to see the Knights get a win at home and in golden point. If they can play more consistently during the season they definately won’t be easy beats and who knows may even sneak into the top 8.

      The Storm have two very capable fullbacks with Jarome Hughes being the other and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him play a lot more this season especially if Billy gets injured again.

      One things for certain about this season, teams like the Panthers are not going to be as bad as some people think even with Anthony Griffen as coach. Ditto for the Warriors and the Tigers after watching round 1. I had the Raiders back in the 8 this season, and they should have taken out the Titans so I guess it still shows a lack of commitment which is a bit of a worry already.

      The Bulldogs will be competitive and if they can cut down their errors and hang on to the ball should also be vying for a top 8 finish.

      The Roosters…….all that expectation and pressure let’s see how it gets to them this season

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2018 @ 9:38am
        Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        Morning Dirk. Round 1 certainly threw up a few wrong-uns. But I have been burnt before by teams like the Tigers and the Warriors. I remember last season when the Tigers started in scintillating form, smashing the Sea Eagles in the opening rounds. At that point people were writing off Manly and penciling Wests in the Top 8. But as we now know, the Tigers faded faster than Paul Kent’s hairline, and the Sea Eagles steadied and made the Finals. So I am giving it a month before I jump to early conclusions.

    • March 13th 2018 @ 10:21am
      Forty Twenty said | March 13th 2018 @ 10:21am | ! Report

      The early round smashing of Manly by the Tigers was very hard to believe Tom in fact it was such a mauling that Bozo demanded that it was erased from the records.

      The great irony about the clash with Newcastle is that Manly had the best juniors on show in the Turbo brothers and have arguably produced the best trio of juniors in the NRL in the last two years including King Gutherson.

      It’s a pretty handy trio anyhow from a region not strong in juniors.

      We won’t know for a long time how the big shuffle really plays out. Manly were beaten in the first two rounds last year despite recruiting Blake Green so the early rounds often don’t prove much which is also what you are saying Tom. In saying that they often provide clues as to how some teams will go.

      Saints are a much better team in my books because Hunt can provide the spark and imagination which was sadly lacking when they were shut down last year. How he delivers when the heat is on will determine his true value however like all the other shufflers.

      I expected a dismal season from the Dogs last year before round one and the Broncos are my tip this year but I give them more hope than last years Dogs.

      Have the Knights got much attack in them? Take Ponga out of the first game and Manly win is my take.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2018 @ 10:43am
        Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        Morning Forty Twenty. I did think about the irony of Manly, a club with the reputation for poaching players and buying premierships, actually having a stronger junior presence in that game than Newcastle, a club that has claimed they were all about home grown talent. And I agree, Manly will bounce back from that defeat. I thought they showed enough in that game to be considered likely to make the Top 8 again.

        I expected the Dragons to be greatly improved this season and predicted them to make the 8. Based on that game, I won’t be disappointed. With one of the competition’s strongest forward packs and an underrated spine, they will be a handful all season. McGregor just needs to keep them focused for 80 minutes and 26 rounds.

        • March 13th 2018 @ 11:20am
          Forty Twenty said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:20am | ! Report

          If I was a Parra, Raiders or Knights fan I would have expected by now for sure to have had another golden era based on a talented crop of juniors. It’s only happened once at each club and that is amazing to me.

          Manly have had three separate golden runs since Parra last won a title and I never would have thought that possible.

          • Columnist

            March 13th 2018 @ 12:21pm
            Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:21pm | ! Report

            It’s all well and good to develop local juniors, but you need someone capable of identifying which ones to keep and which ones to let go. That is where a lot of teams fall down, they keep the wrong players. The other thing which has a big impact on these matters is timing. If your squad if at or near the salary cap and then a young player on your roster has a breakout season, you don’t have the funds to pay him market value. Another team can offer him big money, and off he goes. Timing is crucial.

            • Roar Guru

              March 13th 2018 @ 2:33pm
              Matt H said | March 13th 2018 @ 2:33pm | ! Report

              Or you can be the Broncos, who appear to have embarked on some sort of spine player outreach program for other clubs in recent times. Hunt, Norman, Taylor, Baptiste, Granville, Barba, Gagai off the top of my head and there are probably others. But they looked at that list and decided that Nikorimi at half and playing Sam Thaiday as a back up hooker was their best option. Go figure.

              • Columnist

                March 13th 2018 @ 2:36pm
                Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

                I have a feeling that Wayne put a lot of his eggs in the Ash Taylor basket. But when he resigned with the Titans, he didn’t have a back-up plan

    • Roar Guru

      March 13th 2018 @ 11:00am
      Nat said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:00am | ! Report

      Long gone are the days of furnishing your team with just local talent and those two teams, Knights and Panthers have too just to keep their current coaches employed. Success isn’t measured in ideals and Brown, as the best example, has to show demonstrated success now the club has money or he’s goneski. I do wonder where the measure of success is set for him though?

      I was impressed with the Dogs last week. Playing Melbourne maybe a blessing in disguise as that is a good benchmark and the final score wasn’t representative of the game. It will be interesting to watch them against the Roosters this week. IMO, Jackson was probably the best forward on the field right before Munster left him behind on Saturday then to Eastwood, Munster does it again – game over.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2018 @ 12:27pm
        Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:27pm | ! Report

        Hi Nat. As I mentioned in my season preview ( I honestly think Brown will struggle to keep his job if the Knights don’t make the Top 8. He was the right coach for the rebuild and transition process, but this is now a team in win now mode. Are there better coaches out there for the next stage of the Newcastle process? Maybe there are

        • Roar Guru

          March 13th 2018 @ 1:56pm
          Nat said | March 13th 2018 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

          Top 8 will be tough, not impossible, but every team has bought well to make the task that much tougher. I was going to preface that last comment with IF there is a better coach available. They have a tough draw for the next few months so if they get just a few wins in there he should get some credit. Every chance of coming home with a wet sail though.

        • March 13th 2018 @ 7:27pm
          Knight Vision said | March 13th 2018 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

          total rubbish, the club is still in rebuild mode and will be for the next year or 2. Brown needs only to show improvement and maintain a positive trajectory to keep his job. You dont change pilots mid stream. Stability is whats required and Brown is the man for the job. It was his vision and in Brown we trust. He has delivered everything he said he would thus far. I dont expect to be challenging for the title this year and if the Knights make the 8 I will be surprised. Within the next 2 years though is another story all together.

          • Roar Guru

            March 14th 2018 @ 9:36am
            Nat said | March 14th 2018 @ 9:36am | ! Report

            What has he delivered that he said he would?. Junior development? Unearthed some good young talent for sure and most have now been shopped or benched. What stability? He has gone to market and bought all new spine, centre, props and backrowers. Any measure of success? 3 Wooden spoons i his current legacy. If the old board threatened to sack him last year, Wests Grp will if he cannot produce the benchmark they have set.

    • Columnist

      March 13th 2018 @ 11:05am
      Stuart Thomas said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:05am | ! Report

      You just compared Josh Jackson’s defence with that of James Maloney……….ouch. Let me just get myself back together.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2018 @ 12:24pm
        Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:24pm | ! Report

        Sorry ST. It was only momentarily. Or maybe I had something in my eye

    • March 13th 2018 @ 11:58am
      MAX said | March 13th 2018 @ 11:58am | ! Report

      One of the great sights in Rugby League is stands full of Knights happy clappers.

      Knights now have three tough away games in a row. Raiders, Roosters & St George.

      They need to win at least one of those games to keep their season alive. I wish them well.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2018 @ 12:25pm
        Tom Rock said | March 13th 2018 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

        Me too Max. But tip them at your own peril I say. One game does not make a season.

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