To coincide with the release of “Hard Yards: The story of the Newcastle Knights” by Robert Dillon, reminisce on the ten moments that have defined the tenure of current Knights coach Nathan Brown (so far).
Three decades on from their admittance into the NSWRL, the Newcastle Knights have experienced a host of highs and more than enough lows for the liking of Novocastrians.
Claiming two premiership titles in 1997 and 2001, the club has experienced a great deal of change in recent years following the appointment of Nathan Brown as head coach.
Playing his career with the Dragons throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, a serious neck injury ended his career prematurely in 2001. Across stints with St. George Illawarra, Huddersfield and St. Helens, his experience as a first grade coach saw him appointed to the top job at Newcastle following a wooden spoon finish in 2015.
Leading the Knights through a tumultuous time which has included a further two last-placed finishes, here are ten moments that have defined his time in the Hunter so far.
BACKING OF THE BOARD
With the Knights failing to play finals football in consecutive seasons dating back to 2003, the need to establish a side capable of sustaining success became a priority for club management when looking for a coach. In taking on the position, Brown openly admitted that results would be few-and-far between in the early stages, but stressed the importance of developing the side over time in order to be competitive. With the board entrusting him with an unenviable responsibility, the former Dragons mentor was under no allusions about the challenges that lay ahead.
BOYS AGAINST MEN
From his first match at the helm, blooding young talent became a priority for the new-look Newcastle under Brown’s watch. Debuting five players in Round 1 and a further six rookies over the rest of the season, the amount of inexperience throughout the squad regularly saw the Knights fielding teams of multiple players forced into the big league before their time. Adding to the uphill battle faced throughout 2016, between 11 debutants and an additional eight players with fewer than 20 games in first grade, the end result saw the Knights field a roster in which over 50% of players boasted less than a full season of experience in the NRL.
CRONULLA 62 – NEWCASTLE 0
Managing a win and a draw over the first nine weeks of the season, the Knights returned from the representative bye weekend with a sense of hope that things would improve. Facing off against a Cronulla side riding a high of six straight wins, the ensuing 80 minutes at Hunter Stadium seemed like an eternity for players and supporters alike, with the Sharks running in 11 tries to record a 62-0 demolition. Declaring openly that he was unable to give assurance that things would improve greatly over the remainder of the season, Brown’s candour in assessing the situation served to drive home the rationale behind rebuilding the club.
RELEASING SENIOR PLAYERS
For as difficult as the first season was for the club’s rookies, players experienced in the top grade appeared powerless to change the side’s fortunes. Faced with a precarious situation left over from previous administrations, Brown and General Manager of Football Darren Mooney sought to ease the strain of the salary cap with big calls on senior players. Releasing co-captain Tariq Sims mid-year, allowing forward Robbie Rochow to take up a deal with Souths despite attempts to retain his services, along with exiling record breaking flyer Akuila Uate to reserve grade for the remainder of the year before he joined Manly at season’s end, Brown’s ability to make tough decision enabled the club to enter the player market in a much stronger position.
THE ECSTASY OF VICTORY
Having gone 19 matches over the previous 11 months without recording a win, Round 2, 2017 proved to be an historic occasion for the Knights. In a high-scoring affair against the Titans in Newcastle, a try in the closing minutes to fan favourite Nathan Ross resulted in an explosion of emotion from all who had invested into the club during the trying times of the past year as the side posted a long-awaited 34-26 win. Drawing delight from breaking through at the end of 80 minutes, a relieved Brown took solace in seeing the rewards of his long-term development strategy finally paying off on the scoreboard.
THE WESTS TIGERS DEBACLE
While closer losses and the occasional win ensured supporters remained on board with the direction of the club, serious questions were levelled at Brown following a disastrous showing against the Tigers at home. Installed as favourites for the first time in two years and facing off against a side coming into the match with a seven-game run of losses, the 33-12 loss infuriated supporters who challenged the effort of the players, while even chairman Brian McGuigan directed his ire at the coaches’ tactics. Having received support during the rebuild, the Tigers result served as a match capable of making-or-breaking Brown’s tenure at the club.
BOUNCING BACK FROM BELMORE
After the humiliation of losing at home to the lowly Wests Tigers, the following week resulted in a different heartbreak for the club to contend with. Grinding away against the Bulldogs at Belmore, the Knights appeared set to conjure a stirring upset only for two late tries to leave the side devastated. With young playmaker Brock Lamb subjected to criticism for his part in the result, the response from the entire playing group, and in particular Lamb, over the remainder of 2017 revealed great character, as the side recorded three straight wins and a host of competitive results to restore confidence in the plan entrusted to Brown.
SIGNING MITCHELL PEARCE
Largely successful in identifying junior talent, the prospect of attracting big names to the Hunter proved challenging for the Knights management, but that all changed in the final hours of November with the announcement of Mitchell Pearce’s signature. Successfully luring a premiership winning Origin representative, the signing of Pearce heralded a changing view of Newcastle from a team on the rise to boasting a player capable of leading the club to the playoffs inside 12 months. Having missed out on a host of high-profile stars over the previous year, Brown’s contribution in attracting the former Roosters halfback along with securing highly-sought teen prodigy Kalyn Ponga ensured the Knights would have a much improved roster in 2018
A NEW ‘97 FEELING
There are few, if any, moments in the history of the Newcastle Knights as iconic as the 1997 Grand Final win over archrivals Manly. 21 years after the event, a much-improved Knights roster, including nine club debutants, resumed hostilities with the Sea Eagles in the opening round of 2018. In a fiercely contested match, star signing Mitchell Pearce stepped up to land a field goal in extra time that enraptured the 23,000+ strong crowd and justifying the former Roosters’ hefty price tag. Beginning a season with a win for the first time since his appointment, the result affirmed Brown’s belief that the squad he had worked so hard to develop possessed the qualities needed to be successful in the NRL.
THE BENNETT BOMB
While varying versions of history have omitted certain details, Wayne Bennett is considered to be the individual largely responsible for the Knights rebuild having to occur. Carrying a personal history with the Brisbane icon from his time at St. George Illawarra, Nathan Brown masterminded a dominant win over the Broncos early in 2018 with the performance being labelled as ‘the best victory in my time at the club’ by the Newcastle coach. With Bennett appearing to absolve himself of responsibility for the Knights predicament in answer to a question before the game, Brown used his post-match press conference to deliver a line as instantly iconic as Geoff Toovey’s call for an ‘investigation’.
Purchase your copy of “Hard Yards: The story of the Newcastle Knights” by Robert Dillon for $39.95 here.