After a turbulent 2020 season – featuring injuries to key players that led the team to struggle with consistency – a lot of people are asking where the Knights will finish this NRL season.
The Newcastle Knights took the St George-Illawarra Dragons to the cleaners on Sunday afternoon, but let’s be honest: a reserve-grade team could have done the same.
But the second half of that match demonstrated why Newcastle are well behind the pace regardless. Would the Roosters or the Storm have taken their foot off and shown such poor attack after halftime to leave it at 42-18 with the number of gifted possessions and errors? I think not.
I have been contemplating writing an article about this topic for a while, but with finals coming up I figured now was probably the best time for it, and as a long-time Knights tragic, frustration stepped in.
So why are the Knights so far behind?
Throughout the preseason and even during most of the year Adam O’Brien was continually speaking about how defence wins games. Resilience and toughness have been his catch cries, yet the Knights defence are still fairly lacklustre, embarrassed repeatedly in the resilience area by lower-ranking teams.
The Roosters broke through the defence at will last week, and the Dragons even broke through it easily each time they got down the Newcastle end in the second half.
So where is this amazing defence O’Brien keeps spruiking? I admit our defence is quite a lot better than last year, but that’s like comparing yourself to the worst student in the class.
This leads me into the attack. Easily the biggest reason the Knights are so far behind the ladder leaders is our stilted frustrating attack. For the last month I have watched Newcastle’s attack sputter and struggle. It consistently relies on individual brilliance rather than strong team cohesion and good set plays. So much of it relies on Kalyn Ponga pulling out some miracle to get the team across the line.
Adam O’Brien can bang on about defence as much as he likes, but the old adage that the best defence is a good offence isn’t a saying for nothing. If you can score regularly and continue the momentum, you will wear out the opposing team by constantly forcing them to defend.
Our fifth tackle options are consistently poor at best and we rarely if ever get repeat sets from grubbers into the in-goal or kicks downfield that sit up in the in-goal. Sunday’s game gave the Knights ample opportunity to keep scoring, but they are missing that killer instinct in attack – Ponga excepted – and could not put points on the board for a long period.
The times the Knights were gifted possession ten metres out usually led to the Knights making a poor decision and giving the ball straight back to the Dragons, like Starford Toa trying to sprint down the sideline when three Dragons were waiting for him on the second or third tackle.
Our attack seems to consist of one man up and then one man up until we reach the fifth, and then Mitchell Pearce puts up an easily defused bomb under no pressure, completes high percentage and then waits for the opponent to make a mistake.
Great teams don’t wait for opponents to make mistakes. Great teams create opportunities. The Roosters have shown plenty of ability to create tries from their own half lately with deft passing, chips over the top, hot potato-style passing and general creativity. This is what we need to work towards.
The Knights are terrible at creating second-phase play off these one-up runs, with most line breaks leading to the player making the line break looking around for support but being without a teammate in sight. There were at least two line breaks in the second half by forwards like Jacob Saifiti, but when he looked around for someone to pass to there was nobody there.
For months now, I have believed that Mitchell Pearce should have been relegated to reserve grade because his form has been well below par. Defensively he is usually fantastic, but his attack has been non-existent since Origin last year. I am comparing his form of this year to his form prior to Origin last year, when he was the man of the match for five games straight, creating all of our attack with brilliant plays and fifth tackle options.
But a bigger current issue has been our five-eighth position. Kurt Mann was the team’s best player while he was in that spot and should be put back there to allow Chris Randall to shine at hooker. He seems like a fantastic young player in that spot. The finals are not the time to be experimenting with players. This position has been our biggest crutch for quite some time now and Mann is the best answer we have.
For next year the team should reconsider the stance on Jarrod Mullen. For a prolonged period he was the best half the Knights had and was our leader on the field. He was perhaps even one of the best halves in the game, especially for fifth tackle options and kicks in play.
If he is even half as good as he used to be once his ban expires, he’d be worth taking a punt on. If the Knights aren’t interested in giving one of their own juniors and long-time players a shot at redemption, what do we really stand for as a club?
I know this all sounds bleak, but I’ll still be at home cheering them on in the hope that they don’t make an early finals exit like I expect them to.