Reality bites at struggling Knights

IT was a sobering thought for the 15,792 dejected fans to ponder as they left Hunter Stadium on Saturday night.

Have the Newcastle Knights hit rock bottom?

After their 24-14 loss to Gold Coast, Newcastle’s seventh in 11 games this year and third on the spin, the Knights have slipped to the 11th rung on the NRL ladder.

They have scored fewer points than any team in the competition and will be without talismanic skipper Kurt Gidley for the rest of the campaign.

This week they head to Suncorp Stadium to face second-placed Brisbane, after which – barring a remarkable form reversal – they will in all likelihood be four points adrift of the top eight at the halfway point in the season.

This would have been disappointing in any circumstances.

But given the hype before a ball was kicked this year, Newcastle’s inability to measure up to expectations is rapidly descending into the realms of disaster.

Let’s pause and take a look at the big picture.

Last year Newcastle were a top-eight team under Rick Stone who punched above their weight and in general played an attractive, enterprising brand of football.

To reach the play-offs they had to overcome no small measure of adversity, in particular a cleanout of players commissioned by new owner Nathan Tinkler’s incoming coach Wayne Bennett, the most successful tactician in the game’s history.

No stone was left unturned for Bennett. Players he did not want were moved on, regardless of whether they were under contract.

Representative stars Darius Boyd, Danny Buderus, Kade Snowden, Timana Tahu and Adam Cuthbertson were recruited.

The master coach brought in his own staff, who settled into modern training facilities.

The consensus was that the Knights would be big improvers.

Bookmakers soon installed them as premiership favourites and almost 18,000 supporters took advantage of Hunter Sports Group’s cut-price season tickets, and their hopes were justifiably high.

Yet somehow this team have gone backwards.

Not only are they struggling to get results, but the brand of football they have been playing would cure insomnia.

Bennett has been intent on stripping Newcastle’s game plan back to basics, hoping to develop a structure that will hold up consistently under pressure.

But instead of outgrinding their opponents and wearing them down, the Knights have become dour, predictable plodders bereft of razzle-dazzle.

On paper, Newcastle still appear to have a line-up capable of challenging for a top-four finish.

There is ample time to turn things around.

But on evidence thus far, only their most parochial diehards would be optimistic about such an outcome.

The real worry for fans, already simmering with discontent, is that the worst could be yet to come.

This was supposed to be the year in which the Bennett-Tinkler dream ticket transformed Newcastle into an NRL dynasty.

Finally the Knights, who for 24 years had run on the smell of an oily rag, had the resources to match any rival club.

There would be no more excuses.

It all sounded good in theory.

The reality has been vastly different.

One of the most eagerly awaited crusades since the Knights’ inception in 1988 is in danger of becoming the club’s greatest anticlimax.

The suspicion remains that if anyone can turn Newcastle around, it is Bennett.

Before that can happen, however, they need to reach the point where the only way is up. Rock bottom.

Knights fans can only hope they are already there.

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