Knights firing blanks

THE Knights are struggling through their worst scoring slump in almost 20 years.

As they try to adjust to the methodical, mistake-free attack coach Wayne Bennett wants them to play, Newcastle have averaged just 15.4points a game in their first 10 matches this season.

It is their lowest scoring average since 1993, the year the 10-metre defensive rule was introduced, when they averaged 15.3 a game under David Waite.

The Knights have averaged less points in just four other seasons in their 25-year history: 1988 (12.3), 1989 (12.8), 1990 (15.1) and 1991 (14).

Those were their first four seasons, played under the five-metre defensive rule with a team foundation coach and inaugural Knights Hall of Famer Allan McMahon recruited specifically to play to a simple, defensive-minded game plan in their formative years.

‘‘The 10-metre rule was introduced in 1993 and there was a definite explosion in points across the board after that,’’ league historian and statistician David Middleton said.

‘‘Before that, the fact that the Knights were in their fledgling period would have had a lot to do with it, and across the board the game was still emerging from that very defensive era of the mid-80s, but by 1993 every team was scoring more points.

‘‘Under Allan McMahon they were very much a forwards-oriented team, and under David Waite they were panned as a boring team with that second-man play they used all the time. They didn’t score a lot of points then, and they were limited by who they had on their roster.

‘‘They were very much an intimidatory team with that reputation of being that tough team from the Coalfields ... and they certainly didn’t throw the ball around a lot.’’

Under Rick Stone’s coaching last year, the Knights led the NRL in average line breaks (4.9) and tackle breaks (40.6), were second in metres gained (1400.1) and 10th in offloads (11.2), and were equal eighth in tries scored (3.3) and ninth in points scored (19.4).

In 10 games under Bennett, they are 15th in line breaks (3.2), 14th in tackle breaks (26.5), 12th in metres gained (1280.5), last in offloads (7.7), equal 13th in tries scored (2.6) and 13th in points scored (15.4).

Only the Dragons, Panthers and Titans have scored less tries or points than the Knights this year. Newcastle have scored 20 or more just three times, against the Panthers (34-14), Bulldogs (20-6) and Storm (34-22).

In losses to the Cowboys, Roosters and Dragons in the past month, the Knights scored a total of four tries. The other game in their past four was their win over the Panthers, in which they scored six tries, but it was soured by injuries to leaders Kurt Gidley and Danny Buderus.

‘‘They’ve lost a lot of their creativity losing those two,’’ Middleton said.

Bennett took the Knights back to basics when he clocked on for duty at pre-season training last November, focusing on sharpening up fundamental skills and tightening up their defence.

The thinking was, according to Knights insiders, to get their house in order defensively first and foremost, then their offensive output would improve as the season played out.

New players to the team, particularly strike weapons Darius Boyd and Timana Tahu and dummy-half Buderus, would take time to adjust to playing with new teammates.

Boyd and Buderus would need time to bond with halves Gidley and Jarrod Mullen to form a strong, sturdy spine, but once that was established, cohesion and chemistry would improve with every game the team played together and points would start to flow more freely.

But Gidley suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Penrith on April 30, and even before that he was shuffled from five-eighth to halfback and was in and out of the team due to a partial dislocation of his problematic left shoulder and minor surgery on his right knee.

Boyd and Mullen have played every game, but Buderus has missed the past two – losses to the Roosters (24-6) and Cowboys (32-12) – due to an Achilles tendonitis flare-up.

Mullen has convinced Bennett he is more effective at five-eighth than half, so Gidley’s absence has given Tyrone Roberts a chance to make the No.7 jersey his own for the rest of the year.

Newcastle’s defence has improved slightly, conceding less tries (2.9) and points (17.3) than they did last year, when they allowed an average of 3.4 tries and 18.4 points a game.

But the Knights are 15th in metres conceded (1438.1) this year, which is worse than their ranking of ninth (1343.6) under Stone last year.

League analyst and commentator Peter Sterling, a Newcastle Herald columnist, is certain Bennett’s expectations for the Knights this year are at odds with punters and pundits.

‘‘You would think that despite the mountain of external expectations, realistically – and Wayne Bennett is a realist – this season was always going to be more a year of putting things in place and finishing as high up the ladder as possible,’’ the premiership-winning former Eels, NSW and Australian halfback said.

‘‘That in turn would make them a much more formidable outfit in ensuing years.

‘‘It’s not necessarily a case of short-term pain for long-term gain, but there is a part of that involved in this situation. I would think Wayne Bennett’s expectations for the Knights this year would be far different to any external expectations.’’

So what is this mysterious attacking system Bennett is teaching the Knights?

At the Broncos and Dragons, he built successful teams around a blueprint of high-percentage completion rates and minimising handling errors in their own half.

Giant forwards racked up metres through no-nonsense hit-ups, setting a platform for halves and hookers to complement that with dummy-half dashes and substantial kicking metres. That allowed the defence a chance to force errors as opponents worked the ball off their line. The Broncos were capable of steamrolling teams up the middle or blowing them away out wide, such was their depth of talent, and they won six premierships under Bennett from as many grand final appearances between 1988 and 2008.

In his three years at the Dragons, it was more often a case of those teams stifling and strangling opponents out of games rather than outgunning them in a shoot-out.

The general consensus is Bennett inherited a stronger playing roster at the Dragons in 2009 than the squad he has taken control of in Newcastle.

The Dragons won six of their first eight and seven of their first 10 games in 2009, finishing as minor premiers but bowing out in week two of the finals after losses to the Eels and Broncos.

In 2010, the Dragons won eight of their first 10, lost just seven games all year, and won the premiership. They lost just one of their first 12 last year but faded to win only four of their last 14, and lost to the Tigers and Broncos in the finals to again be eliminated in week two.

Bennett is yet to divulge details of what he is trying to do to modify Newcastle’s attacking structure, but has talked around the topic on several occasions since arriving six months ago.

‘‘We’ve got a choice here,’’ Bennett said after their 24-10 loss to the Broncos on March 16. ‘‘We can be the team that they’ve been the last couple of years, or they can aspire to be better than that, and that’s where we’re heading – we want to be better than that.

‘‘That means change, and it means we’re driving a lot of agendas, and these guys have been great. They’ve been buying into it.

‘‘But for them it’s a different way of playing football, and the fans are just going to have to hang in with us hopefully, before we get it right. And we’ll get it right.’’

Exactly how long will it take until the players are re-educated remains to be seen, but Bennett’s comments after the 32-12 loss to the Cowboys last Saturday support Sterling’s theory.

‘‘I’ve come here for four years,’’ Bennett said.

‘‘I didn’t think this was going to be a quick fix, and I didn’t want a quick fix. If I was looking for a quick fix, I’d do things differently.

‘‘I know where I’m going. I know what I’ve got to do. I’ve just to get everybody behind me with it. And they’re all working hard to do that.’’

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