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The Newcastle Knights went into season 2011 full of confidence that the dramas that surrounded the club over the previous 12 months would become no more than fish and chip paper. The Novocastrians moved quickly in December 2010 to re-sign Chris Houston after the forward was found to have no case to answer on drug supply charges. In the process the Knights found themselves a piece of the puzzle they desperately missed in 2010 - depth in the forwards, and began to look onward to season 2011.
The red-and-blues started the season in fine fashion with back-to-back victories over the Panthers in Round 1, followed by a victory in the tropics in Round 2. The 42-8 hammering of the mountain men signalled the possible dawn of a new age with five-eighth Beau Henry outstanding. Unfortunately for the young former Dragon, he would be told his services were no longer required several weeks later when new owners the Hunter Sports Group pulled off a massive coup by signing 2010 premiership-winning Dragons, and former Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett. Bennett wasted no time putting his mark on the club, promptly telling the former NYC player of the year he would not be required in 2012. The Knights moved into round two and the heat and humidity of an early-season game in Townsville, racing out to an early lead, before hanging on and registering a 34-22 victory.
They would lose four of the next six games heading into the first bye, which came at a good time after being on the end of a comprehensive 42-12 defeat by a slick Melbourne Storm side. The defeat in the southern capital would be the start of a mid-season form slump in attack where the Novocastrians would not score more than 20 points in any game for 10 consecutive rounds. Their victories over this period were based around a newfound steely resolve in defence; something not associated with the team in recent years.
Arguably the side's two best performances over the course of the season were in the space of seven days when they hammered Gold Coast 50-20 before backing up with a 40-8 demolition of the Raiders and all of a sudden the attacking problems that had hindered the side for several weeks appeared to be gone. Three losses on the trot after the Canberra victory left the Knights needing to defeat South Sydney on a Friday night in the last round in front of over 30,000 fans at Ausgrid Stadium. The 34-24 victory allowed the side to qualify for the finals for the second time in three years; however they were never in the qualifying final at AAMI Park after trailing 18-0 at halftime. The 18-8 fulltime score would draw the curtain on the season and Rick Stone's immediate coaching career at the helm of the club as Bennett takes over for four years starting in 2012.
At times the Knights showed tremendous consistency over the course of a three or four week period, but it was their inability to put these sorts of performances together on an almost weekly basis. If coach Wayne Bennett can improve the mental attitude of the side as a whole as well as consistency in performances, the sky is the limit for Newcastle.
There would be a struck match between the round-25 second half capitulation at ANZ Stadium when the Knights led 22-6 at halftime before being overrun 32-22 and the 26-6 loss to the Broncos the previous week. Their away record will also need to improve after suffering eight defeats in 13 matches away from the home surrounds of Ausgrid Stadium.
Captain Kurt Gidley as always tried his guts out for the Knights, finishing the season with patella tendonitis in his right knee while Fijian winger Akuila Uate continues to improve with experience at NRL level. The flying Fijian was rewarded for his good form with a Kangaroos jersey and made his debut in the one-off test at Ausgrid Stadium on October 16. Chris Houston was welcomed back with open arms into the Novocastrian fold and fitted in seamlessly into the Knights surrounds as if he had never left; also being named in the Kangaroos train-on squad.
The emergence of youngsters such as Ryan Stig, Peter Mata'utia, Tyrone Roberts and Zane Tetevano will ensure the future of the club remains in good hands.
2012 promises to be a very exciting year for the people of the Hunter and the Newcastle Knights. Seven-time premiership-winning coach Wayne Bennett has a wealth of stars at his disposal ensuring, at least on paper, a Newcastle side that should challenge for the premiership. The acquisition of Kade Snowden, Timana Tahu, Darius Boyd, Adam Cuthbertson and home-grown hero Danny Buderus should ensure the Knights are there or thereabouts when finals football rolls around again next September.
A capacity Ausgrid Stadium in Newcastle will be a sight to behold and the Knights find themselves now in a position where they can realistically aim for the lofty heights of the NRL premiership table once more.
Gains: Darius Boyd, Alex McKinnon, Adam Cuthbertson (Dragons), Robbie Rochow (Storm), Danny Buderus (Leeds UK), Timana Tahu (Panthers), Kade Snowden (Sharks), Daine Laurie (Newcastle NRL)
Losses: Adam MacDougall, Ben Rogers, Dan Tolar (retired), Shannon McDonnell, Con Mika (Hull KR), Antonio Kaufusi (London Harlequins), Mark Taufua, Isaac De Gois (Sharks), Keith Lulia (Bradford Bulls), Steve Southern (Wakefield Wildcats), Cameron Ciraldo (Panthers)
Best 2012 line-up
1 Darius Boyd 2 Akuila Uate 3 Junior Sau 4 Wes Naiqama 5 James McManus 6 Jarrod Mullen 7 Kurt Gidley (c) 8 Evarn Tuimavave 9 Danny Buderus 10 Kade Snowden 11 Zeb Taia 12 Chris Houston 13 Neville Costigan
Interchange: 14 Matt Hilder 15 Richie Fa'aoso 16 Joel Edwards 17 Adam Cuthbertson