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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Season review: Newcastle Knights at the crossroads

It was a tough season for Knights coach Adam O'Brien and skipper Kalyn Ponga.

NOBODY summed it up better than coach Adam O'Brien when he labelled 2022 a "shitty season" for the Newcastle Knights.

Supporters inclined to disagree are surely few and far between.

Statistics tell only part of the tale. Six wins from 24 games, 14th position on the NRL ladder, 372 points for (second worst in the competition), 662 points against (third worst).

After finishing seventh in each of their first two seasons under O'Brien, bowing out both times in week one of the finals, it was an unexpected reality check.

Before a ball was kicked in the pre-season, O'Brien declared: "I honestly believe top four is well within our capabilities but at the moment, it's a pipe dream. We need to make it happen."

Unfortunately, they didn't even get close.

After encouraging wins against the Roosters (20-6) and Tigers (26-6) to open the season, the Knights went into their round-three clash with Penrith in Bathurst with enough confidence and momentum to believe they could upset the premiers.

But midway through the first half, back-rower Mitch Barnett was sent off for elbowing rival forward Chris Smith in the head and Newcastle's season took a spectacular turn for the worse.

The Panthers cruised to victory, 38-20. Barnett was suspended for six games and Newcastle lost them all, slipping from first on the ladder to last in the process.

By the time Barnett returned, after signing a three-year deal with the Warriors while he was banned, Newcastle were affectively dead and buried in the finals race, although O'Brien continued to insist at his weekly press conferences that a miracle was possible. Instead the Knights delivered a season that proved torturous for their long-suffering supporters.

Of their 12 home games, Newcastle lost 10, to equal the club record held by Nathan Brown's hapless wooden spooners of 2016.

In a horrendous stretch mid-season, they were outscored 197-28 in consecutive losses to Manly (30-6), Parramatta (39-2), Melbourne (50-2), Brisbane (36-12) and Penrith (42-6).

Never before in Newcastle's history had they lost so many successive games so heavily on home turf.

"We don't want to turn up and put in those performances," O'Brien said at one point. "We really appreciate all our members, our sponsors, our supporters that sit on that hill rain, hail or shine, and we don't like letting them down.

"But it's certainly something that we'll need to drive us over the summer to make sure that we get this place to be a really hard place to come and get two points."

As the season listed from bad to worse, O'Brien found himself in uncharted waters.

During his time as an assistant coach at Melbourne and Sydney Roosters, O'Brien was part of highly successful teams invariably placed at the pointy end of the ladder.

As he said at the post-match press conference after Newcastle had been humbled at home by Penrith: "Previous to getting this job here I was involved in four grand finals ... you don't unlearn that knowledge."

Maybe not, but by the same token, being head coach of a team in a downward spiral is vastly different scenario to holding an assistant's role with high-flying outfits.

The departure of veteran playmaker Mitchell Pearce to Catalans Dragons at the end of 2021, parlayed into a pre-season Achilles injury that sidelined hooker Jayden Brailey for months, meant O'Brien was at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Then Kalyn Ponga, after a man-of-the-match performance in Origin III, succumbed to a spate of concussions and sat out the final six games of the season, leaving the Knights without their most influential player.

As is so often the case when a club is floundering on the field, there were dramas off it.

Former Test and Origin enforcer David Klemmer was stood down for a week after a much-publicised game-day run-in that cost high-performance manager Hayden Knowles his job.

Klemmer, voted players' player by his teammates, was released at the end of the season to link with Wests Tigers, in a trade deal that allowed the Knights to recruit playmaker Jackson Hastings.

And Ponga, while sidelined after his head knocks, was involved in an infamous incident in the Hotel Delany with teammate Kurt Mann that prompted the NRL integrity unit to commission immediate drug tests - the results of which have still not been confirmed publicly.

Both incidents occurred just after the arrival of veteran official Peter Parr as the Knights' new football director.

"This season hasn't gone to plan but the club's nothing like a basket case," Parr said. "We can turn it around quickly and I'm confident we will and not just for the short term."

Fans are entitled to reserve judgement, but most will agree Newcastle's new recruits - Hastings, Tyson Gamble (Brisbane), Jack Hetherington (Canterbury), Adam Elliott (Canberra) and Greg Marzhew (Gold Coast) - give the squad a stronger look, on paper.

And by all accounts, there is a collective desire to make amends in 2023.

"We've spoken a lot about how we want to be better next year," Brailey said.

"We fell short of our standards and we're working hard to make sure that doesn't happen again ... we're building into the pre-season nicely."

The Knights lost 10 of 12 home games in 2022, equalling a club record.


ROUND 1: KNIGHTS 20 (D Gagai, J Clifford, E Tuala, D Young tries; Clifford 2 goals) ROOSTERS 6 (P Momirovski try, S Walker goal) at SCG. Half-time: Knights 10-2. Crowd: 14,710.

ROUND 2: KNIGHTS 26 (B Best, J Clifford, T Frizell, D Gagai, D Young tries; Clifford 3 goals) TIGERS 6 (K Maumalo try; J Hastings goal) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Knights 14-0. Crowd: 23,214.

ROUND 3: PANTHERS 38 (T May 3, I Tago 2, S Crichton, C Staines tries; Crichton 5 goals) KNIGHTS 20 (B Best, E Tuala, T Hoy, D Young tries; J Clifford 2 goals) at Carrington Park, Bathurst. Half-time: Panthers 12-6. Crowd: 11,253.

ROUND 4: SHARKS 18 (S Katoa, W Kennedy, S Talaki, A Tolman tries; N Hynes goal) KNIGHTS 0 at Shark Park. Half-time: Sharks 8-0. Crowd: 8927.

ROUND 5: SEA EAGLES 30 (A Davey, M Harper, K Lawton, H Olakau'atu, T Paseka tries; R Garrick 5 goals) KNIGHTS 6 (K Ponga try; J Clifford goal) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Sea Eagles 10-0. Crowd: 9472.

ROUND 6: DRAGONS 21 (M Feagai 2, J Bird, A McCullough tries; Z Lomax 2 goals, field goal) KNIGHTS 16 (D Gagai, K Ponga, E Tuala tries; J Clifford 2 goals) at WIN Stadium. Half-time: Dragons 8-4. Crowd: 11,113.

ROUND 7: EELS 39 (I Papali'i 2, D Brown, S Lane, W Penisini, H Perham tries; M Moses 7 goals, field goal) KNIGHTS 2 (J Clifford goal) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Eels 14-2. Crowd: 25,169.

ROUND 8: STORM 50 (X Coates 3, J Olam 2, J Hughes, N Meaney, T Moeroa, C Munster tries; R Papenhuyzen 7 goals) KNIGHTS 2 (J Clifford goal). Half-time: Storm 26-2. Crowd: 15,895.

ROUND 9: COWBOYS 36 (T Dearden, K Feldt, V holmes, H Luki, J Nanai, M Taulagi tries; Holmes 6 goals) KNIGHTS 16 (C Randall, J Saifiti, D Young tries; K Ponga 2 goals) at Townsville. Half-time: Knights 16-12. Crowd: 14,463.

ROUND 10: KNIGHTS 16 (B Best, A Clune, E Lee tries; K Ponga 2 goals) BULLDOGS 6 (J Addo-Carr try; M Burton goal) at Suncorp Stadium. Half-time: 6-all. Crowd: 30,220.

ROUND 11: BRONCOS 36 (S Cobbo, H Farnsworth, C Oates, J Riki, B Walters tries; K Staggs 6 goals) KNIGHTS 12 (T Frizell, K Ponga tries; Ponga 2 goals) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: 6-all. Crowd: 13,312.

ROUND 12: KNIGHTS 24 (E Tuala 2, T Frizell, E Lee tries; J Clifford 4 goals) WARRIORS 16 (A Pompey, V Vailea, D Watene-Zalezniak tries; R Walsh two goals) at Redcliffe. Half-time: 12-all. Crowd: 4265.


ROUND 14: PANTHERS 42 (B To'o, N Cleary, S Crichton, V Kikau, T May, I Tago tries; Cleary 7 goals) KNIGHTS 6 (E Lee try; J Clifford goal) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Panthers 26-0. Crowd: 21,332.

ROUND 15: RAIDERS 20 (N Cotric, X Savage, M Timoko, H Young tries; J Fogarty 2 goals) KNIGHTS 18 (M Croker, E Lee, K Mann tries; K Ponga 3 goals at Canberra Stadium. Half-time: Raiders 14-6. Crowd: 12,457.

ROUND 16: KNIGHTS 38 (E Lee 5, D Young 3 tries; T Hoy 2, A Milford goals) TITANS 12 (A Brimson, G Marzhew tries; J Isaako 2 goals) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Knights 22-0. Crowd: 8578.

ROUND 17: RABBITOHS 40 (R Kennar 3, C Walker 2, J Paulo, T Tatola tries; L Mitchell 6 goals) KNIGHTS 28 (M Barnett, B Best, D Klemmer, E Lee, D Young tries; A Milford 4 goals) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Rabbitohs 24-16. Crowd: 18,621.

ROUND 18: SEA EAGLES 42 (J Saab 2, A Davey, L Croker, T Koula, H Olakau'atu, C Tuipolotu tries; D Cherry-Evans 6, R Garrick goals) KNIGHTS 12 (A Clune, K Ponga tries; K Ponga 2 goals) at Brookvale Oval. Half-time: Manly 14-6. Crowd: 15,896.

ROUND 19: ROOSTERS 42 (J Sua'ali'i 2, D Tupou 2, E Butcher, A Crichton, L Keary, J Tedesco tries; S Walker 5 goals) KNIGHTS 12 (P Crossland, E Lee tries; A Milford, K Ponga goals) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Roosters 16-2. Crowd: 13,701.

ROUND 20: BULLDOGS 24 (J Kiraz 3, A Schoupp tries; M Burton 4 goals) KNIGHTS 10 (E Tuala, D Young tries; J Clifford goal) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Bulldogs 18-4. Crowd: 19,813.

ROUND 21: KNIGHTS 14 (E Tuala 2, T Hoy tries; J Clifford goal) TIGERS 10 (A Kepaoa, B Naden tries; A Doueihi goal) at Campbelltown Stadium. Half-time: Knights 14-0. Crowd: 9621.

ROUND 22: BRONCOS 28 (S Cobbo 3, E Mam, C Oates tries; A Reynolds 4 goals) KNIGHTS 10 (B Best, D Saifiti tries; A Milford goal) at Suncorp Stadium. Half-time: Broncos 18-0. Crowd: 25,742.

ROUND 23: RAIDERS 28 (S Kris 2, J Rapana, H Young, J Wighton tries; J Fogarty 4 goals) KNIGHTS 22 (E Lee 2, D Young 2, J Brailey tries; A Milford 1 goal) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Knights 22-8. Crowd: 16,768.

ROUND 24: TITANS 36 (A Brimson 2, G Marzhew 2, T Boyd, B Fermor, D Fifita tries; T Boyd 4 goals) KNIGHTS 26 (D Gagai 2, E Lee, D Saifiti, D Young tries; T Hoy 3 goals) at Gold Coast. Half-time: Titans 24-10. Crowd: 11,816.

ROUND 25: SHARKS 38 (B Nikora 3, L Metcalfe, L Miller, R Mulitalo, J Ramien tries; N Hynes 5 goals) KNIGHTS 16 (D Young, T Hoy tries; Hoy 2 goals). Half-time: 12-all. Crowd: 16,808.

PLAYED 24: Won 6, Lost 18. Points for: 372. Points against: 672. Finished: 14th


MITCH BARNETT. Games: 14. Paid a high price after being sent off in round three for the use of an elbow. He was suspended for six games and the Knights lost them all. The back-rower has since signed with the Warriors and he undoubtedly will be missed.

BRADMAN BEST. Games: 14. The 21-year-old endured an injury-interrupted season that he would prefer to forget. A prodigious talent, he will be hoping to bounce back in 2023.

JAYDEN BRAILEY. Games: 8. A ruptured Achilles in the pre-season left Brailey recovering from surgery until the final seven games. By then, Newcastle were languishing near the bottom of the ladder, which meant Brailey missed the finals for the first time in his career.

JAKE CLIFFORD. Games: 12. A prized mid-season signing from the Cowboys in 2021, Clifford was a big disappointment in his second campaign with the Knights. Played only 12 games and was released at season's end to join Hull FC.

ADAM CLUNE. Games: 18. The former St George Illawarra playmaker held his gloves up in his first year at the Knights. Produced a team-high 12 try assists and was the team's most effective tactical kicker.

MAT CROKER. Games: 16. One of the rare positives to emerge for Newcastle. The 22-year-old from Nabiac grabbed his chance and looks to have established himself as a long-term first-grader.

PHOENIX CROSSLAND. Games: 19. Still only 22, Crossland juggled a number of roles - halfback, hooker and lock - and will surely benefit from the experience and game time he received in 2022.

LACHLAN FITZGIBBON. Games: 9. Started the year strongly but a recurring shoulder injury required season-ending surgery. Needs a change of luck after spending more time on the sidelines than on the field over the past two years.

TYSON FRIZELL. Games 21. Named Newcastle's player of the year after busting his backside on a weekly basis, despite niggling injuries. Came close to a NSW recall after being named in an extended squad for Origin I.

DANE GAGAI. Games: 20. Returned to Newcastle after four years at South Sydney but, after a bright start, his form was underwhelming, especially in defence. Missed an unacceptable 88 tackles in club games but starred in Queensland's Origin series triumph.

TEX HOY. Games: 12. Did his best as Kalyn Ponga's deputy but was released at the end of the season. Heading to Super League to play alongside Clifford at Hull FC.

JACK JOHNS. Games: 3. Behind the eight-ball after off-season surgery, the back-rower was scarcely sighted in the top grade, appearing in only three games, all losses.

BRODIE JONES. Games: 13. After a breakout 2021 season, the Cessnock junior found himself in and out of the top squad. Injury in the pre-season, followed by a bout of COVID, did not help his cause.

ORYN KEELEY. Games: 1. The teenage back-rower made an unexpected NRL debut after Tyson Frizell broke down in the warm-up before playing Canberra. Spent only a few minutes on the field but will receive plenty more chances in the future.

DAVID KLEMMER. Games: 18. Gave his usual 100 per cent each week but it counted for little, after he was effectively leveraged out of the club, signing a three-year deal with Wests Tigers. A run-in with head trainer Hayden Knowles was probably the final straw. He'll be super-motivated for the round-two clash at Leichhardt next season.

EDRICK LEE. Games: 16. One of the few feelgood stories to emerge for the Knights last season. Returned from a career-threatening injury to score 14 tries, including a club-record five in one game. Has since joined new franchise the Dolphins.

KURT MANN. Games: 11. Started promisingly as a ball-playing lock but missed half the season with an ankle injury. Ended the year on a low note with his involvement in the much-publicised Hotel Delany cubicle incident.

KRYSTIAN MAPAPALANGI. Games 2. The 19-year-old centre was blooded at the back end of the year and was not out of his depth. Likely to feature more often in 2023.

ANTHONY MILFORD. Games: 13. Arrived at Newcastle mid-season and played about as well as he did in his last couple of seasons at the Broncos. No great loss when he left at the end of the year to link with his old mate Wayne Bennett at the Dolphins.

JIRAH MOMOISEA. Games: 5. Will be hoping to prove he is more than just a fringe first-grader after signing to join heavyweights Parramatta next season.

KALYN PONGA. Games: 14. Signed a massive five-year deal with Newcastle and was man of the match in the Origin-series decider, but it was all downhill from that point. After a spate of concussions, he was stood down for the final six games of the season. The toilet-cubicle incident - which he still has not discussed - raised questions about whether the 24-year-old enigma is the right man to lead Newcastle.

CHRIS RANDALL. Games: 17. The former Lakes United product deputised while Brailey was sidelined and did not let anyone down. A two-year deal with Gold Coast tempted him to ask for a release and head north at the end of the season.

DANIEL SAIFITI. Games: 19. Suffered a fractured leg in the pre-season, followed by a knee injury. The State of Origin regular was hence overlooked for the interstate series. The Knights need him to be at his best if they are to rebound in 2023.

JACOB SAIFITI. Games: 23. Produced the game of his life on debut for NSW in Origin III, scoring a try and dominating Queensland with his powerful charges. After Klemmer's departure, he'll finally get the chance to establish himself alongside Daniel as a starting forward next year.

SIMI SASAGI. Games: 14.The 21-year-old utility should only improve after the regular opportunities he received in 2022. The next step in his evolution will be to push his way into the starting line-up, most likely as a centre.

PASAMI SAULO. Games: 11. The Knights spent several years developing the home-grown Australian Schoolboys rep, only to release him to Canberra at the age of 24. Time will tell if Newcastle officials live to regret that decision.

SAUASO SUE. Games: 7. The journeyman prop spent most of the year in NSW Cup before signing for Hull Kingson Rovers in Super League. Played in seven games and Newcastle won none of them.

LEO THOMPSON. Games 16. An unknown when he joined Newcastle from Canberra, the former New Zealand rugby union convert proved a shrewd acquisition. Packs plenty of power in a chunky frame and should be better with a year of NRL experience under his belt.

ENARI TUALA. Games: 21. Switched from wing to centre and vice versa all season. Scored eight tries but, like Gagai, was found wanting in defence too often for the liking of coach Adam O'Brien.

DOMINIC YOUNG: Games: 20. Scored 14 tries to establish himself as a genuine strike weapon in the NRL. Continued his try-poaching feats for England at the World Cup. Now the big question is whether the Knights can retain the towering winger, who has attracted interest from a host of rival clubs.

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