2022 review: Newcastle Knights

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You finish where you deserve

There were many failings that contributed to the Newcastle Knights dismal 2022 campaign. The most damning was one that went largely unnoticed.

Facing the in-form Cowboys in Townsville during the first third of the year, North Queensland winger Kyle Feldt crossed out wide midway through the opening half before improving his position to ground the ball closer to the posts.

The successful conversion proved inconsequential in the final wash-up, as the side slumped to last on the ladder courtesy of a seventh consecutive loss, however the lack of concentration displayed by highly-lauded centre Bradman Best in failing to compete on every play embodied an easy way out mentality that plagued the Knights all year.

Having reached the first week of the finals in the previous two seasons, coach Adam O'Brien's side impressed over the opening fortnight before steadily declining to the point that the wooden spoon loomed as an outside possibility up until the final weeks of the season.

Finishing in 14th position with attacking and defensive records ranking in the bottom three of the league, the mediocre on-field results extended off the field with club management allowing Mitchell Pearce to leave without securing a suitable replacement, senior players David Klemmer, Kalyn Ponga and Kurt Mann inviting negative headlines late in the season and a succession of team selections that left players unaccountable for their performances.

Conceding more than 36 points in 11 matches while managing to crack 30 themselves only once, supporters were left to lament how a team that had risen from wooden spooners to top eight finalists regressed to a side reminiscent of Nathan Brown's early years at the helm.

In a different year, the Newcastle Knights would have run last based on their 2022 form. For the sake of O'Brien and the goodwill of supporters, the Knights need to find an identity where effort is the bare minimum.

Turning Point

Stunning the league world by leading the competition a fortnight into the season, the round three clash against Penrith in Bathurst shaped as a gauge of the side's standing among the NRL hierarchy.

Going set for set with the reigning premiers for the first half hour, an inexplicable moment of stupidity from Mitchell Barnett, raising an elbow to the jaw of opposing forward Chris Smith, set in motion a downward spiral that killed off any hope of the Knights being anything other than also-rans for the remaining 22 weeks of the season.

Falling from first to last in the weeks that coincided with Barnett's six-match ban, the side never recovered from the Bathurst debacle, climbing no higher than 12th on the ladder, accruing a measly four wins against the lowly Bulldogs (16-6), Warriors (24-16), Titans (38-12) and Tigers (14-10) for the remainder of the year.

What worked

In a year which regularly saw the NRL side save their worst performances for home soil, the Newcastle faithful continued to show up even when the team they were cheering on didn't.

Managing two paltry victories over Wests Tigers (26-4) and Gold Coast (38-12) from 12 appearances on Turton Road, fans routinely made their way through the turnstiles with crowds topping 15,000 eight times, including three occasions with in excess of 20,000 supporters in attendance, to rank among the best supported teams in the league.

Novocastrians have stuck solid with their team through lean times over the years, but few seasons left fans with as little to root for as 2022.

What didn't work

Like ‘eyes-up football' and ‘one week at a time' before it, the truism ‘next-man up' has become ingrained into the rugby league vernacular over recent years.

Representing a mentality of resilience in the face of injuries and other adversities, the Knights more aptly fit the description of ‘mentally weak' based on their 2022 performances.

While the Knights were dealt yet another tough hand with injuries, losing co-captains Jayden Brailey and Kalyn Ponga for extended periods, the side's inability to weather adversity frequently saw close contests go by the wayside and narrow deficits turn into blowouts.

Touting the signing of club legend Andrew Johns in a role designed to improve the side's stilted attack over the off-season, the eighth immortal's influence was rarely sighted with the side managing 15.5 points each week.

Former prodigy Anthony Milford, handed a mid-season lifeline following off-field legal drama, proved a bust in 13 appearances to rank among the worst signings in the history of the club. Using the Knights as a layover ahead of a reunion with Wayne Bennett at The Dolphins, Milford was spared being deservedly dropped post-Origin due to injuries in the halves.

2022 results

RndDateDayOppositionVenueCrowdRank
1Mar 12thSat 3:00pmASydneyW20-6SCG14,7102nd
2Mar 20thSun 4:00pmHWests TigersW26-4McD. Jones23,2141st
3Mar 26thSat 3:00pmA NPenrithL20-38Carrington11,2534th
4Apr 1stFri 6:00pmACronullaL0-18Pointsbet8,9277th
5Apr 7thThu 7:50pmHManlyL6-30McD. Jones9,47213th
6Apr 17thSun 4:00pmASt Geo IllaL16-21WIN 11,11311th
7Apr 24thSun 2:00pmHParramattaL2-39McD. Jones25,16914th
8May 1stSun 2:00pmHMelbourneL2-50McD. Jones15,89516th
9May 7thSat 7:30pmANorth QldL16-36QLD C.B.14,46316th
10May 13thFri 6:00pmA NCanterburyW16-6Suncorp30,22015th
11May 19thThu 7:50pmHBrisbaneL12-36McD. Jones13,31215th
12May 28thSat 3:00pmAWarriorsW24-16Redcliffe4,26513th
14Jun 12thSun 4:00pmHPenrithL6-42McD. Jones21,33212th
15Jun 19thSun 2:00pmACanberraL18-20GIO 12,45712th
16Jul 1stFri 6:00pmHGold CoastW38-12McD. Jones8,57812th
17Jul 8thFri 7:55pmHSouthsL28-40McD. Jones18,62112th
18Jul 16thSat 5:30pmAManlyL12-424 Pines 15,89614th
19Jul 22ndFri 7:55pmHSydneyL12-42McD. Jones13,70114th
20Jul 31stSun 2:00pmHCanterburyL10-24McD. Jones19,81314th
21Aug 7thSun 4:05pmAWests TigersW14-10C'town9,62113th
22Aug 13thSat 7:35pmABrisbaneL10-28Suncorp25,74214th
23Aug 21stSun 4:05pmHCanberraL22-28McD. Jones16,76814th
24Aug 28thSun 4:05pmAGold CoastL26-36CBUS11,81613th
25Sep 4thSun 2:00pmHCronullaL16-38McD. Jones16,80814th

Best player

Few Newcastle players could claim to have improved from past seasons with one notable exception - Dominic Young.

Recruited to the club from the UK as a teenager, the hulking outside back made the right wing position his own with 14 tries from 20 appearances to emerge as a breakout star on the domestic and international stages.

Making significant strides from the unrefined talent showcased the previous season, the former Huddersfield fringe player endeared himself to supporters, averaging 134 running metres each week, resulting in two awards at the club's presentation night - the Gladiator Award, selected by the Once A Knight Old Boys, and Knight In Shining Armour Award, for chasing down Josh Addo-Carr during Magic Round, judged as the stand-out moment of the year.

Earning a post-season call-up to represent England at the World Cup, culminating in nine tries from five tests, the 21-year-old can expect to field plenty of market interest with rival clubs currently able to negotiate for 2024.

Rookies

Debuting three players in first grade during the course of the season, former Canberra lower-grader Leo Thompson was judged Rookie of the Year off the strength of 16 appearances during the first two-thirds of the season.

Krystian Mapapalangi and Oryn Keeley, stars from the Jersey Flegg squad that fell agonisingly short in extra time of the Under 20s grand final, featured late in the season. Mapapalangi produced a try-assist early in his debut, while Keeley was notified of his elevation from 18th man mere moments before kick-off after Tyson Frizell aggravated an injury in the warm-up.

Mat Croker, a middle forward from the Mid North Coast, built upon his limited opportunities last season to finish 2022 as a regular interchange player and earn his first top 30 contract in the process.

2022 player stats

PlayerAgeAppTGFGPtsBinOff
BARNETT, Mitchell28141--4-1
BEST, Bradman21145--20--
BRAILEY, Jayden2681--4--
CLIFFORD, Jake2412219-46--
CLUNE, Adam27182--8--
CROKER, Mat22161--41-
CROSSLAND, Phoenix22191--41-
FITZGIBBON, Lachlan289------
FRIZELL, Tyson30213--12--
GAGAI, Dane31205--201-
HOY, Tex221237-26--
HUNT, Hymel281------
JOHNS, Jack243------
JONES, Brodie2413------
KEELEY, Oryn191------
KLEMMER, David28181--411
LEE, Edrick291614--56--
MANN, Kurt29111--4--
MAPAPALANGI, Krystian192------
MILFORD, Anthony2813-8-161-
MOMOISEA, Jirah245------
PONGA, Kalyn2414412-40--
RANDALL, Chris26171--4--
SAIFITI, Daniel26192--8--
SAIFITI, Jacob26231--4--
SASAGI, Simi2114------
SAULO, Pasami2411------
SUE, Sauaso307------
THOMPSON, Leo2216------
TUALA, Enari23218--32--
YOUNG, Dominic212014--561-
31 players25.53247046037262

Looking Ahead

The best thing about failure is the opportunity to grow from the experience.

Many things went wrong on and off the field for the Knights in 2022, but with the opportunity to complete a full pre-season with minimal injury disruptions and a quartet of fiery competitors - Adam Elliott, Jack Hetherington, Tyson Gamble and, crucially, Jackson Hastings - joining the ranks, the Knights have the foundations of a team capable of challenging for the top eight once more.

A successful group of Jersey Flegg youngsters should put the pressure on underperforming first-graders for positions, while the addition of Hastings will be vitally important following the lack of direction provided by the halves in 2022.

With a fit-and-firing Kalyn Ponga and Jayden Brailey raring to go for Round 1, the Knights can only go up in the year to come.

2023's Best 17

At time of writing

1.    Kalyn Ponga
2.    Dominic Young
3.    Dane Gagai
4.    Krystian Mapapalangi
5.    Enari Tuala
6.    Tyson Gamble
7.    Jackson Hastings
8.    Jacob Saifiti
9.    Jayden Brailey (C)
10.  Daniel Saifiti
11.  Tyson Frizell
12.  Jack Hetherington
13.  Adam Elliott

14.  Kurt Mann
15.  Mat Croker
16.  Leo Thompson
17.  Brodie Jones

18.  Phoenix Crossland


Statistics: Rugby League Project