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When does Nathan Brown’s future get questioned?

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Roar Guru
30th March, 2019
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1961 Reads

You could argue that facing the Sharks, Panthers and Raiders is a pretty tough start to the season for the Knights.

But look closer. The Sharks were adjusting to a new halves combination, new edge combinations on both sides of the field and effectively a new fullback.

The Knights had a lot of adjustments of their own – more on that later – but Round 1 wasn’t necessarily a bad time to meet the Sharks at home. Good win.

The Panthers were well out of sorts themselves in Round 1.

In the Knights’ defence, they ran into one of those performances from James Maloney where a single player drags his team over the line. The Knights had their chances but narrowly went down.

Game three was away to the Raiders, who had beaten the Titans but been well beaten by the Storm.

Again, the Knights were in the game but couldn’t generate the points when they needed them.

Not a terrible start to the season by any means, but two of those games were at home in front of arguably the most passionate supporter base in the NRL.

The argument about whether they’ve had a tough start or not could rage all weekend.

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Is two competition points against these teams from two home games a pass mark for a team with genuine top eight ambitions?

It’s there or thereabouts. They would have been hoping for more but it could have been worse.

The Knights have also only scored 38 points from three games. To their credit, they haven’t conceded too many more but an average of less than 13 points per game is probably a fair way south of where they’d want it.

In the off-season, Nathan Brown made a career-defining gamble by moving Kalyn Ponga to five-eighth.

Kalyn Ponga of the Knights

(AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)

So far, it hasn’t worked.

It would be completely reasonable for someone to say that it will take Ponga time to adjust to a new position.

Wayne Bennett has always said it took the great Darren Lockyer 18 months to fully get used to the switch and he was the best player in the world at the time.

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The reasonable response would be, “Of course, so why did Brown do it now?”

It’s not like Ponga at fullback wasn’t working for the Knights. He was two points off winning the Dally M. He won the RLPA Players’ Champion. He was the Knights’ player of the season and their players’ player, too.

It’s generally accepted that had Mitchell Pearce not been injured and missed nine games, that the Knights would have made the eight. Connor Watson also missed nine games in two injury stints.

Watson’s performances at five-eighth were good and his statistical returns acceptable when you consider Pearce and Ponga were the creative focal points in attack for the Knights.

So after years of struggle, the Knights built a top eight quality spine. It delivered.

For the first time since 2014, they finished the season off the bottom of the table in 11th.

They recruited exceptionally well again and strengthened their weaknesses around the No.1, No.6, No.7 and No.9 positions, particularly in the middle third. The launching pad was well and truly cleared for take-off.

But Brown immediately started tinkering, dismantling and rebuilding the spine.

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It’s not necessarily the wrong thing for the Knights, but the timing is odd. It doesn’t feel like it’s building on the relative success of 2018.

Nathan Brown Newcastle Knights

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Now, after three games and two consecutive losses, Brown has said about the Ponga move: “I was always going to give it five weeks, that was the plan. I wouldn’t sit here now and say we’re going to do one or the other but I’ll have a conversation with Kalyn. I’m not one of these coaches who’s stubborn enough not to put my hand up and say, ‘Maybe it’s not a good idea’.”

Maybe not end of the world, but those words can’t be inspiring confidence in Knights fans.

The Knights have the Dragons (home), Sea Eagles (home), Titans (away), Eels (home), Warriors (away), and Bulldogs (away) up to Round 9.

Far from the toughest draw, and notably, by Round 7 they’ll have played five home games and only two away.

So what’s a pass mark by Round 9 with that draw?

Five wins and four losses seems on the low side. Six and three sounds a bit more like it but they’ve already lost two, so they’ll need to win five from their next six to hit that mark.

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The Knights will definitely need points in the bank because after that they have Dragons (away), Roosters (home), the bye, Rabbitohs (away), Storm (away), and Broncos (home).

Looking at that run of games affirms that the Knights need to be better than five wins and four losses by Round 9.

Origin is normally not a bad time of year to meet teams like the Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs, Dragons and Broncos but it’s likely the Knights will be just as heavily impacted.

David Klemmer and Ponga are certainties for the Blues and Maroons respectively. Tim Glasby is a likely selection. Pearce is a possible. Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Aidan Guerra are outsiders.

While it’s slightly premature to suggest Brown is under pressure to keep his job, these next six weeks could be the most important of his coaching career as he balances the Ponga positional predicament with the need for instant results.

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Four wins in that period may be acceptable, but any less than that and questions will start being asked.