IT was another year in which the Newcastle Knights attracted more headlines for what happened off the field than on it.
It should, because it has been largely the case since 2006 – the last time they reached the NRL top eight and won a game in the finals.
Making the finals, and making a deep run into September, were considered a formality in the first full season under Nathan Tinkler’s ownership and Wayne Bennett’s coaching.
But the Knights won just 10 games, finishing 12th, and a Bennett-coached team missed the finals for the first time since the 1991 Broncos.
Just five of those wins were at Hunter Stadium, which at various stages of the club’s 25-year history has been a fortress.
The year began with great expectations for a successful season and ended under a cloud of uncertainty as Tinkler’s financial difficulties raised doubts about his ability to continue owning and running Newcastle’s NRL team under his own steam.
Knights Members Club directors agreed on December 17 to allow Tinkler and his Hunter Sports Group management team to remain in control.
But that was conditional on a January 21 audit report that must prove HSG met all its financial requirements for 2012, including underwriting $10million in sponsorship, providing sufficient working capital, and funding for the Newcastle Rugby League and junior development.
HSG chief executive Troy Palmer, who maintains Tinkler’s woes have been overstated by the media and that his boss is in much better financial shape than has been reported, said all those milestones had been met.
There also remains the not-insignificant issue of more than $3million in tax owed to the Australian Taxation Office, almost $600,000 in unpaid rent owed to the NSW Government, and an undisclosed total amount owed to an undisclosed number of businesses of all sizes.
Knights Members Club directors have insisted those creditors must be paid.
Palmer insists they will be.
Provided that is sorted, all indicators point to an improved on-field performance in 2013, but that would not be difficult after the downer that was 2012.
‘‘By any measure, the Newcastle Knights’ 2012 season ranks as a major disappointment,’’ league historian David Middleton wrote in his 2012 Official Rugby League Annual.
‘‘The club’s decision to privatise and the appointment of seven-time premiership-winning coach Wayne Bennett had raised expectations in the Hunter through the roof.’’
That was certainly the case in the minds of Tinkler, Newcastle players and supporters, but Bennett did his best to deflect the burden of expectation from the moment he set foot in the city late last year, and said all season long that the Knights were a work in progress.
For all but a mid-season stretch of five wins from six games, which came after they were booed from the field by Hunter punters after an awful 32-16 home loss to Canberra on June 9, the Knights were rarely better than mediocre.
Somehow, they were still a chance of sneaking into the finals with three games left in the season, but Manly put an end to that with a ruthless 42-20 thumping at Brookvale Oval on August 19.
The Sea Eagles were too big, too strong and too quick, racing to a 38-4 half-time lead before a string of injuries to key players helped Newcastle add some respectability to the scoreboard.
‘‘Look, I’ve been asked that question lots, and if you’ve been listening to my interviews and what you’ve been writing, we haven’t put ourselves in the finals equation at any time – not this coach anyway,’’ Bennett said after that game.
‘‘I’d never thought about us being in the play-offs this year, and I’m still not thinking that way, regardless of the result today.
‘‘We gave up too much at the beginning of the year, we’ve had Kurt Gidley injured all year, and there’s no team going to make a presence in this play-offs without their top players being available.’’
Gidley played just five games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in a 34-14 home victory over Penrith on April 30.
The inspirational skipper will be back in 2013, having made a full recovery from reconstructive surgery, but that will not be the case for some of his long-time teammates.
Regulars from recent seasons including Zeb Taia (Catalan Dragons), Richie Fa’aoso (Manly via Melbourne), Wes Naiqama (Penrith), Joel Edwards (Canberra), Junior Sa’u (Melbourne) and Evarn Tuimavave (Hull KR) have been moved on.
In their place, Bennett has recruited Jeremy Smith from Cronulla, Beau Scott from St George Illawarra, and former Rabbitohs enforcer David Fa’alogo from Huddersfield.
Bennett reckons they will provide the muscle and mongrel that was missing in 2012, and it is hard to argue with him.
‘‘That’s part of the overall plan,’’ Bennett said on his first day at pre-season training in early December.
‘‘I felt at times last year we’d pull up on the bus somewhere and you knew the opposition hadn’t had a sleepless night worrying about you. They were thinking, ‘The Knights aren’t going to throw a lot at us today and it’s not going to be a tough game’.
‘‘I hope next year when we pull up on the bus they’re saying, ‘Here come the Knights and we’ve got ourselves a tough game on our hands today.’
‘‘That’s what those guys bring. They have a reputation for being guys that lead from the front and having attributes that you need in this game.
‘‘The three of them are highly credentialled in that area. That’s not something anyone questions about them.’’
Troubled but talented former Roosters centre Joseph ‘‘BJ’’ Leilua and veteran former Knights and Melbourne winger Anthony Quinn are expected to bolster Newcastle’s backline depth, though they are yet to finalise NRL contracts with the club.
If those deals are done, if Gidley stays healthy, if age is not an issue for the eight 30-somethings on the roster, if players are inspired rather than intimidated by Bennett, and if the financial house is in order, the Knights can look forward to a prosperous 2013 campaign. Then they will make headlines for all the right reasons.