Newcastle Knights legend Jarrod Mullen has been given the green tick to return to the game after his drug ban dating all the way back to late 2016.
It feels as though the news of Connor Watson leaving the Newcastle Knights quickly became a referendum on Adam O’Brien’s ability to coach and build a successful culture at the club.
It was bewildering last week to see the same talking heads who routinely praised Nathan Brown’s awful tenure at the club come down on O’Brien so fiercely.
When the Knights lost 28-8 to the Roosters a few weeks ago, even me, as a Knights fan, had to question whether O’Brien had what it took to make the club successful.
But since that loss they’ve won four games in a row and look poised to play finals for consecutive seasons, something the club hadn’t done for 18 years before his arrival.
They’ve had a good run of games to help them out, but you still have to win them and a club like Canberra has found ways to lose these games this year.
He may not be the coach who takes the Knights to Grand Final glory, but there is no doubting he has made the club competitive at the very least.
Success is measured in many different ways, and some may see two seventh-placed efforts in consecutive years as mediocre.
It is still better than what half the competition has done in the past two years and can be a good building block for long-term success.
Compared to the 7-8 years of garbage football the fans put up with before he arrived, it is difficult to understand why some fans and media pundits believe his predecessor did a better job.
Here is some of what he has achieved during his two-year tenure.
In 2020 he had to use more than 30 players as the injury toll forced more than 10 players to spend long stints on the sideline. Normally using more than 30 players means a club will finish in the bottom four but he got them to seventh.
In 2021 he has been dealt with the same injury run and has them in the box seat for another 7th placed finish. The club’s detractors will say they’ve been inconsistent, which is true, but if you are continually changing your line-up and can never have players in key positions available all at once it makes it extremely challenging to play consistent football.
Halfback Mitchell Pearce has only played 10 games so far in 2021 and they’ve gone 8-2 in the games he has played. When Pearce hasn’t played, the Knights are a dreadful 3-9, which equates 80 per cent win rate down to 33 per cent. Even as Pearce has declined in the last 18 months due to age, that is a staggering statistic.
Pearce and O’Brien’s overall record together reads 19 wins, 10 losses and a draw, which is an excellent return considering the merry-go-round of playmaking spines the club has been forced into.
Since Jake Clifford has arrived mid-season, the Knights are a perfect 5-0 when he plays alongside Pearce.
For so long under O’Brien, the club has struggled to find the right man to play outside Pearce, but it looks like O’Brien hit a home run by identifying Clifford to play in the six jersey.
As well as having a more experienced squad than in years gone past, O’Brien has gone deep into his squad to blood the likes of Brodie Jones, Chris Randall, Dom Young, Simi Sasagi, Brayden Musgrove, Matt Croker and Jirah Momoisea.
He has been able to keep the club competitive in the present while maintaining an eye on the club’s future, which can be tricky waters to navigate.
Another area they’ve excelled in is games decided by single digit margins. The Knights are 11-4-1 which at the least suggests they’ve learnt how to grind out wins and for a blue-collar town, they understand the importance of ugly wins over pretty losses.
The one aspect that is concerning is they only rank 15th in total points scored, which should be impossible with Kalyn Ponga as the best player in your team. The Knights still run a lot of block shapes in attack which has slowly gone out of vogue and made them easy to defend at times.
Ponga is at his best when he has space on either the left or right edge, rather than playing as a support man through the middle and the one area they can tinker with their attack may be to find a way how to stretch the defensive line with long passing before they have the likes of Bradman Best and Kurt Mann pour into holes.
Getting Dane Gagai back to the club next season will help provide more strike and should improve their attack once again.
Prior to coaching the Knights, O’Brien had never held a head coaching role at any level after serving a 15-year apprenticeship under Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson.
He was seen as one of the best up-and-coming coaches for several years, and the likes of Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater have stated on record how good they think he can be.
Perhaps there was more pressure on him than the normal rookie head coach to hit the ground running, but for the handicaps he has been dealt, he has done a fantastic job to keep the Knights in the top eight.