NEWCASTLE supporters have a reputation for being the loudest, most loyal fans in the NRL, but their passion and patience will be tested in the next month as the struggling Knights welcome interstate teams North Queensland, Gold Coast and Canberra to Hunter Stadium.
One of the most talked-about teams in the pre-season, due to the arrival of seven-time premiership-winning coach Wayne Bennett and international recruits Darius Boyd, Kade Snowden, Danny Buderus and Timana Tahu, the Knights are yet to live up to the hype.
Languishing in 10th position after four wins from their first nine games, the Knights have lost captain Kurt Gidley to a season-ending shoulder injury and are now rated by TAB Sportsbet as a $34 chance of winning the premiership after opening the season among the favourites at $9.
Without Gidley and Buderus, and with a misfiring attack which has produced just 24 tries, Newcastle will start as underdogs against the Cowboys at Hunter Stadium tonight.
The Knights were out-muscled 24-6 by the Roosters at Allianz Stadium last Sunday, continuing a roller-coaster form line of loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss.
Unless they bounce back with an improved performance against the Cowboys tonight, they will run the risk of losing touch with their fans as well as the leading teams.
‘‘I think we’re just sick of letting everyone down. [There were] great expectations of us this year, and we sort of haven’t delivered on that front,’’ Knights utility forward Matt Hilder said.
‘‘We’re trying hard and hopefully things are going to start to click soon – the sooner the better obviously, because it’s halfway through the year nearly.
‘‘We’ve got to put another winning performance in front of our home crowd.
‘‘We knocked off Penrith here and were happy to get that home win, but you want to start trying to put some consecutive wins together, and we haven’t seemed to be doing that at all this year.’’
A crowd of 30,729 watched the Knights beat Souths 40-24 in the last game of the regular season last year to reach the finals, then a new ground record of 32,890 watched Darren Lockyer’s last game on Australian soil as the Kangaroos crushed the Kiwis 42-6 on October 16.
Encouraged by those numbers, Knights chief executive Matt Gidley speculated that the first two games of this season against the Dragons and Broncos, Bennett’s two former clubs, could attract sell-out crowds, but neither even cracked the 30,000 barrier.
The Knights lost 15-14 to the Dragons in extra time on opening night and 24-10 to Brisbane two weeks later, in front of crowds of 29,189 and 23,894 respectively.
They recovered to win their next two, a dour 14-6 grind against the last-placed Eels in front of 24,158 on April 8, but only 16,892 watched them beat Penrith 34-14 on April 30.
That was Newcastle’s most free-flowing display this year but was soured by injuries to Gidley (shoulder) and Buderus (Achilles), and the crowd was less than their total number of ticketed members, which at 5pm yesterday stood at 17,496, according to the club’s website.
It was Newcastle’s first Monday night game this year, and like most clubs the Knights struggle to attract a crowd on Monday nights.
They now face three straight Saturday home games, followed by another Monday night game against the Tigers on June 25.
Behind the Broncos (35,321) and Bulldogs (25,362), the Knights (23,533) are averaging the third highest home crowds of any club this season.
But as the chill of winter descends, and the fans’ focus shifts from the NRL to the State of Origin series, the Knights will be doing well to keep the Hunter Stadium turnstiles ticking over.
After playing the Cowboys tonight, the Knights host the Titans (May 26) and Raiders (June 9), and none of those teams are renowned for bringing hordes of their own fans with them.
The corresponding games last year were in Newcastle’s bottom five home crowds.
The game against Canberra (14,109) was 11th out of 12, Cowboys (17,212) ninth and Titans (17,327) eighth.
Though their defence is among the best in the NRL – heading into this weekend’s 10th round only the Storm (20) and Bulldogs (22) had conceded fewer tries than the Knights (24) – they are yet to establish their attacking groove under Bennett’s philosophy of mistake-free football.
Only the Titans (20) and Eels (22) have scored fewer tries than Newcastle (24).
Apart from in the Penrith game, the Knights have scored 20 points or more just twice, in a 20-6 away win against the Bulldogs and in their 34-22 away loss to the Storm, in which they scored twice in the final four minutes after Melbourne had already wrapped up the game.
‘‘Fans just want you to win, and that’s all we want to do as well,’’ Hilder said.
‘‘As I said before, it hurts us when we let them down and it hurts everyone in the club, so we’ll go out there and try our hardest not to do that on Saturday night.’’