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Since arriving in Newcastle at the end of the 2015 season, Nathan Brown has been a master of managing expectations.
While he was a bit more eloquent than this, questions of playing finals footy during his first two seasons in the Hunter were more or less met with the response: “Ha! Nup.”
And, given the state of the club’s roster upon his arrival, that was just as well.
While it was disheartening for fans to hear, Brown simply did not have the troops to get anywhere near the top eight during the 2016 and ’17 seasons.
So he maintained a realistic outlook, which also helped him to keep his job, despite being head coach of a club that had taken out three wooden spoons in a row – with two on his watch.
However, heading into 2018, more than a few fans were ready for Browny to start talking up his side’s chances.
There had been an impressive recruitment drive, picking up the likes of former Origin reps Aidan Guerra and Jacob Lillyman, premiership winners Chris Heighington and Slade Griffin, as well as young talents Tautau Moga, Connor Watson and Herman Ese’ese.
Chuck in the most exciting rookie in the game, Kalyn Ponga, and the unexpected acquisition of Mitchell Pearce and you’ve got the makings of a boom squad.
Add the fact the kids who were blooded before their time were starting to come into their own – think the Saifiti brothers, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Mitchell Barnett and Danny Levi – and a run at the eight had to be a reasonable forecast from the coach.
But Brown continued to keep a lid on things.
“People are saying we should be making the finals next season and of course we’d love to, but it’s not about me saying to the guys, ‘We should win 12 games,’ or, ‘We should win 15,’ or whatever,” he wrote for Players’ Voice.
“It’s about coming together as a group as quickly as possible, building combinations and competing hard.
“Where that takes us, we’ll see, but the fact is we’re still coming from the bottom of the competition so it’s a long way to the top.”
Missing the top eight by 12 points suggests Brown was right to temper expectations, particularly given the team’s horror injury run.
Besides, the wooden spoon didn’t have red and blue ribbons tied to it at season’s end, so there were still celebrations come September, even if the Knights were watching the finals from the couch yet again.
But. But. But! Surely – surely – Brown has got enough confidence in his 2019 squad to start chucking out some top-eight predictions?
Because after the cash-splashing bonanza of last year, the club has once again pulled out the chequebook, landing some quality recruits.
Tim Glasby is a current Origin player and would have been a solid marquee name to toss around, were it not for the truly huge coup of the club landing Test prop David Klemmer.
Jesse Ramien had a breakout season at the Sharks last year and could well threaten for an Origin spot in the coming years.
James Gavet, Hymel Hunt and Edrick Lee are solid first graders, while Mason Lino and Zac Woolford are young, hungry and could prove great value pick ups.
Given the only real losses from last year were Lillyman and Heighington – and, with due respect, both were always squad players brought in to show a bit of leadership rather than genuine big-name signings – the Knights have once again improved markedly heading into 2019.
How’s this for a matchday 17?
1. Connor Watson
2. Shaun Kenny-Dowall
3. Jesse Ramien
4. Tautau Moga
5. Nathan Ross
6. Kalyn Ponga
7. Mitchell Pearce
8. David Klemmer
9. Danny Levi
10. Tim Glasby
11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon
12. Mitch Barnett
13. Aidan Guerra
14. Jamie Buhrer
15. Daniel Saifiti
16. Herman Ese’ese
17. Sione Mata’utia
That means no space for the likes of Lee (nothing personal Edrick, but the Rossdog bled for us in the lean years – Browny may have shopped him around, but he’s picked second, after Ponga, in my team), Hunt, Jacob Saifiti, Woolford, Lino and Josh King.
Plus, Griffin – who was one of the best-performed signings of last year before doing his knee – could make a return from injury around July, while the club reportedly remains confident of picking up Dragons utility Kurt Mann (and the Knights aren’t the Knights without guy named ‘Kurt’ in the team).
That’s a squad that should make the finals.
While injury will obviously have a say in how many games certain guys in the top 17 actually end up playing, well, that excuse got trotted out a fair bit in 2018.
And the time for excuses is well and truly over in the Hunter – it’s time for the coach to start delivering.
This is his team. It took him years to get it, and there’s been plenty of pain in putting it together, but the pieces are finally all in place.
So while Brown should continue to manage expectations – a premiership in 2019 is probably unrealistic – he also needs to start talking like a winner.
Trent Robinson and Craig Bellamy don’t start the season saying, “I just hope we play hard and compete for one another.” They say, “We’ve got top-four aspirations.”
Finals footy has to be the acceptable outcome for the Newcastle Knights in 2019. And, after three years at Turton Rd, Nathan Brown should finally come out and say it.