A season that once again threw up plenty of obstacles for the Newcastle Knights, where injuries, losing streaks and a lack of matches played at home threatened to derail their season. But second year coach Adam O’Brien was able to rally his troops, and lead the club to consecutive finals appearances for the first time in 18-years.
2021 Club RecordEmbed from Getty Images
Wins: 12 wins
Losses: 13 losses
Competition Points: 26
2021 Player AchievementsEmbed from Getty Images
Most Tries: Enari Tuala (13)
Most Points: Jake Clifford (78)
After making the finals for the first time in seven years in 2020, the season of 2021 was supposed to be a year where the Knights made further improvement, and staked a claim for a top four finish. A friendly draw afforded to the Knights helped fuel the belief that the team could push for higher honours, but despite winning their opening two matches, 2021 quickly turned sour for the club as a horror injury toll and the return of some old defensive issues quickly threw the Knights’ season into disarray. With marquee playmakers Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga missing the majority of the first half of the season, the Knights were left floundering in 14th place after as many rounds, but with more than enough winnable fixtures remaining and a plethora of stars returning to full fitness; including Pearce and Ponga, coach O’Brien told his embattled side to block out the negative media, forget about the first half of the season and start project ‘season reset’.
O’Brien himself had struggled to deal with the problems the team were facing, he had blown up numerous times in press conferences and he was also captured by the cameras in the sheds serving up a halftime spray on more than one occasion. But he was able to compose himself and his players to go on a run of seven wins in nine matches to secure a seventh place finish in Round 24 when a Pearce field goal in the final stages clinched a 15-14 win over the Titans. O’Brien’s ability to navigate his side through ‘choppy waters’ in 2021 can be seen as a great achievement, and prove vindication for the club who extended his deal earlier in the year. Whilst O’Brien and the team can take pride in their finals finish, there are still plenty of areas to improve in, none more so than the teams’ stuttering defence, which ranked an embarrassing 15th position, only above the hapless Bulldogs. For a team that boasted the likes of Pearce, Ponga and damaging centre Bradman Best, scoring points should be the least of their problems, but even when O’Brien has his best team on the field, their attack looked slow and one dimensional, and no doubt they’ll already be looking at how they can improve in this area next season.
Some of the blame for the Knights’ struggles in attack can be attributed to savage injury toll, their spine was ever changing with no less than 11 different halves combinations used by the Knights in 2021. Injuries weren’t just exclusively in the halves either, with plenty of backs and forwards also spending time in the injury ward, only winger Enari Tuala and utility Connor Watson managed to play every game for the club. In the absence of key players, there opened the door for some new faces to stake their claim as starters and key players for the Knights, none more so than Jacob Saifiti who had a break out season, which resulted in him winning the Danny Buderus medal as the clubs’ player of the season. With twin brother Daniel already an Origin player, Jake had been left behind since they debuted together in 2016, but after such a strong year where his performances resulted in him winning a starting spot over David Klemmer, an Origin call up for Jake might not be too far away. Jake Clifford who made a mid-season switch to the Knights also impressed, especially in the final month of the season, where he started to take over the reins as the teams’ chief playmaker, despite the presence of Pearce.
After bowing out of the season in the first week of the finals with a spirited defeat to Parramatta, the clubs’ focus has already switched to 2022, the club will be soon opening their Centre of Excellence, whilst they’ve already made some roster moves both on and off the field. Fan favourite Watson shocked the club when he opted to take up an inferior deal to return to the Roosters, this was quickly followed by the news another popular member of the club Josh King would be taking up a deal at the Storm, whilst both decisions shocked the club, no one can begrudge either player for joining clubs of the Roosters and Storm calibre. The Knights did have a win in the transfer market as they secured the signing of former Knights’ player Dane Gagai, the Rabbitohs’ star will return to the club for 3-years and give the team an infusion of winning culture after a successful stint in Refern. The club has also wasted no time in revamping their backroom staff, assistant coaches Anthony Seibold, Scott Dureau plus head of performance Ballin Cupples have all either left or been shown the door. Cupples has been replaced by highly regard Penrith and NSW Blues’ Hayden Knowles, who will be tasked with trying to reverse the clubs’ poor injury toll in the past two years.
If the Knights want to improve on their past two seventh placed finishes, there are multiple areas they’ll need to improve in. As mentioned the appointment of Knowles will hopefully improve the fitness and resilience of the players’ physical state, but further improvements will be required to progress up the ladder. As mentioned the team’s attack will be the main area they look for improvement, but they’ll need to also work on all areas of their kicking game. The Knights were mid-table in forced dropouts, whilst they lead the league with the most long kicks and were third in kick metres. This shows the team were forced into kicking long way too often, which can be attributed to a lack of run metres and kick return metres where again they finished mid-table. The Knights’ back three struggled all season to bring the ball out of their own end, which in-turn requires their forwards to run further back to make their carries which all results in a lack of overall metres made and forces them into long kicks. If the Knights can get better kick returns by their wingers and fullback, this will have a knock-on effect in all areas of their attack. Whilst the Knights can improve and push for higher honours, they’ll know the NRL is a fast changing competition and if you’re not going forward, you’ll likely be going backwards, something they’ll want to avoid in 2022.
NothingButLeague Player of the Season – Kalyn PongaEmbed from Getty Images
Try Assists: 15
Run Metres: 1,695
Tackle Bursts: 69