If there is one group of people who deserve good news and a sustained period of success, it’s fans of the Newcastle Knights.
With Kalyn Ponga locked up on a new four-year deal, Adam O’Brien working miracles with the same roster who didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making the top-eight last year, and four wins from their first six games of 2020, Knights fans do finally, at long last, have something to cheer about.
Given the Knights’ standings over the last five years – three wooden spoons and a pair of 11th place finishes – the fact their average home crowd never diminished below 14,457 is astounding.
There has been a long-held line in rugby league circles that a healthy team in Newcastle is good for the sport, and their crowd averages at the lowest ebb will re-enforce that point.
And sure, the same argument could be made about the team they beat on Thursday evening in the Brisbane Broncos, but the problems that club are facing require three articles, a new coach and about 40 years of collective playing experience added to their roster.
The bottom line is that Newcastle are playing a strong, attractive brand of footy right now, and while a premiership may not be in the offering for them at the end of 2020, they are destined to play finals rugby league for the first time since 2013 – when Wayne Bennett was coaching – and build the platform for the club to springboard into a successful future.
And even if a premiership is unrealistic this year, there is one on the road ahead who have rediscovered their mojo.
Ponga is the key to that becoming a reality, and locking him down for another four years starts that process.
It’s indisputable he has been a far superior player under O’Brien – a lot of Knights have, but more on that soon – and his performance in the win over the hapless Broncos proved it beyond all reasonable doubt.
222 metres off a heavily involved 24 runs, 55 of those kick-return and 53 post-contact, to go with a line break, six tackle-breaks, a couple of offloads and a better than solid night in defence.
He was immense in Thursday’s win, and while the Knights may be paying what is considered top dollar for him, he will only keep improving.
You have to remember before criticising Ponga that he has had huge expectations lumped on him since day dot, and even now, he is still only a 22 year-old whose best years are still ahead of him.
In fact, by the time this deal winds to its end in 2024, fans may well look back and consider the Knights have paid under what Ponga is worth, although, in the current COVID-impacted climate, it’s hard to know exactly what that number looks like.
The Queensland fullback’s services have been wanted by other clubs, rugby union and other countries, but ultimately, the Knights have landed him and will be all the better for it.
Under Nathan Brown, Ponga at times looked disinterested, and while he wasn’t helped by injury, his general output and numbers have been far superior early on this year.
At times, a fullback is only as good as the remainder of his team though. As good as the platform laid down by the forwards, and as good as the ability of his halves to control the game, and for Newcastle, all of those elements have improved out of sight in the early going of the 2020 season.
Again, O’Brien can be attributed to a lot of this. The team look like they are enjoying themselves, playing an entertaining, attractive style of rugby league, and are winning games of footy. It only took 60 seconds of listening to Mitchell Pearce and Ponga talk on Fox Sports post-game to see how comfortable team are.
Pearce himself was wonderful last night, but after the years of struggle, including last year’s enormous underperformance under Nathan Brown, the improvement in players like Kurt Mann, the Saifiti brothers and even Hymel Hunt or Bradman Best, is clear to see.
The Saifiti brothers – particularly David – should be attracting most of the attention when Newcastle’s improvement is mentioned.
He looks not only fitter, up to handling bigger minutes and more workload in the middle third of the field, but cleaner in his skills, organisation and carrying of the footy, while his tackling has gone from strength to strength.
There is no question that, while Brisbane were flat out ordinary in Thursday’s contest, they turned up to hit hard in the middle during the first half an hour.
Some of the shots put on by the returning Tevita Pangai Junior and Payne Haas were bone-rattling, and yet, Saifiti, who was a shock selection for New South Wales last year, didn’t take a single step back. Instead, he upped his game and matched them.
Instead of relying on David Klemmer to lead the charge, he took over, ending the night with 226 metres from just 20 carries.
It’s that sort of confidence and leadership from young players who have been in the Newcastle system for long enough to understand what the team is about which will carry them forward.
Mann is another part of the success story, and confidence is the word which will keep popping up. Most experienced halves wouldn’t put a kick in on Tackle 1 to set up a try, but Mann did exactly that for Hymel Hunt to cross in the 21st minute.
It was a gutsy play, but speaks volumes of the wings O’Brien has given his side. It’s visible in every facet of their play, even if Brisbane aided them with their shocking performance last evening.
They have their star, they have their coach, and they have plenty of building blocks to work around.
While the loss to Melbourne last week will rightly be pointed out as the idea that Newcastle aren’t yet among the best, that’s not the argument being made. 2020 isn’t going to be a premiership year for the Knights, but it’s going to give them the building blocks to chase one in the coming years.
And no club, or their supporters, deserves it more.