2014 IN REVIEW: Few positives in Newcastle Knights’ year from hell

TO steal a line from Matthew Johns, it was a bludger of a year.

Finishing one game short of the 2013 grand final, the Knights and their supporters were entitled to approach their 2014 campaign with optimism and enthusiasm.

But for all intents and purposes, the season was over before it began.

The Knights never recovered from the jailing and subsequent sacking of Russell Packer, the former Warriors and New Zealand Test prop they had recruited to bolster their pack.

But if they thought that was the worst thing that could happen to them this year, they were mistaken. Far from hitting rock bottom, it was merely the start of their free fall.

Hamstring injuries to five-eighth Jarrod Mullen in the Auckland Nines and fullback Darius Boyd in a round-one loss to Penrith seemed serious at the time but did not compare to the calamitous night at Melbourne’s  AAMI Park on March 24.

That was the game Alex McKinnon suffered a career-ending spinal injury.

Playing, let alone winning, mattered little after that.

The Knights regrouped to beat Cronulla 30-0 six days later – their first victory of the season and one of only two from their first 13 games – but, understandably, coach Wayne Bennett said the team’s focus had shifted to the welfare of their stricken teammate.

‘‘Maybe it’s the hardest week I’ve ever had in coaching,’’ Bennett said.

There were more tough times to come.

On May 14, Zane Tetevano became the second prop the Knights sacked this year after he was convicted in Belmont Local Court of punching and breaking a taxi windscreen.

Tetevano, who played out the season with NSW Cup club Wyong and has signed with Manly for 2015, will face court again on November 28 to plead not guilty to 11 charges relating to an alleged series of attacks on his former girlfriend and her property.

On the field, the Knights were out of the finals race before the Origin series had been decided.

After a 29-12 loss to defending premiers Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium on June 14, their 11th from 13 games, Bennett was asked which players were due back from injury, suspension or Origin duty for their next game against the Cowboys.

‘‘We’ve got one in jail [Packer], one in hospital [McKinnon] and one sacked by the club [Tetevano], so they won’t be back,’’ Bennett said with a straight face.

Earlier that day, NRL chief executive Dave Smith fronted a media conference in Newcastle to announce the game’s governing body had taken over from Nathan Tinkler and his Hunter Sports Group management company as the Knights’ owners.

In the final months of Tinkler’s turbulent three-year reign, staff and player payments were late and deadlines to secure bank guarantees were missed, despite assurances to the contrary from HSG and Knights management.

This was an unacceptable distraction that created an atmosphere of uncertainty when the players and coach needed a show of strength, solidarity and support from the front office.

The Knights climbed out of wooden-spoon contention with three straight wins over the Cowboys, Eels and Sharks.

But a day of celebration, the culmination of the ‘‘Rise For Alex’’ round to raise funds for their much-loved teammate, ended in disappointment when they lost 22-8 at home to the Titans.

It was McKinnon’s first game at Hunter Stadium since he suffered his neck injury, and he wiped tears from his eyes as his teammates and the crowd stood and applauded him before kick-off, but the Knights could not harness the emotion of the occasion and were well beaten by a team that finished below them.

In another body blow, Boyd admitted himself into a Sydney mental-health clinic three days later seeking treatment for depression. He would not play again this year.

On the same day, a Sydney newspaper had reported the Queensland and Australian star was being investigated for an incident in which $1500 worth of damage was done to a room in a Hunter Valley resort he had stayed at one week earlier.

Bennett announced a fortnight earlier that he would not be back in 2015 for the final year of his four-year contract, ultimately deciding that he would return to Brisbane instead.

‘‘In the history of the club, we have had some tumultuous years, we have had years where we have been close to administration and folding and carried large debts and all sorts of obstacles, but certainly this year takes the cake,’’ departing Knights executive chairman and premiership-winning former captain Paul Harragon said on July 25.

In a rare case of a coach replacing the man who replaced him, the Knights appointed Rick Stone as head coach for the next two years.

Bennett had succeeded Stone at the end of 2011.

Trying to live by the creed ‘‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger’’, the Knights finished with five wins from their last seven games, including victories over the finals-bound Roosters and Storm, unearthing talented brothers Sione and Chanel Mata’utia in the process.

But there was another bitter pill to swallow before the final siren sounded on Newcastle’s season from hell, only on this occasion it was a drama not of their making.

On August 22, forwards Kade Snowden and Jeremy Smith accepted 12-month suspensions from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority for unknowingly and unwittingly using banned performance-enhancing substances while playing for Cronulla in 2011.

Their bans, effective immediately, were backdated to November last year and meant they missed the last three games of the season, a 48-6 loss to the Broncos in Brisbane and comprehensive home wins against the Eels (42-12) and Dragons (40-10).

‘‘Maybe in my coaching career, it may have been my finest hour this year here,’’ Bennett said after the victory over the Dragons, when asked about the legacy he had left in Newcastle.

‘‘You laugh ... and I know I’m in the results-driven business, but no one knows what we’ve been through here this year except those that have been part of that action.

‘‘These guys have kept turning up every week under a lot of different situations.

‘‘Lots of times this year I wasn’t coaching here, I was just managing situations and making sure it was holding together so we could finish the season with a bit of credibility, which we’ve managed to do.

‘‘And we finished as a team, which was more important to me than anything else.’’

The eight teams that miss the finals usually reflect on a handful of losses they regret more than others. 

For the Knights, who finished two wins outside the top eight in 12th spot, they were the home games they dropped against the Raiders, Tigers and Titans.

All three teams finished below them on the ladder.

The Knights remain under the control of the NRL, which after four months in charge is still in the process of setting up a new board to usher in a new ownership and management model.

Even the emergence of Sione and Chanel Mata’utia, who played the last seven games, was tempered by news that they and brother Pat had signed a heads-of-agreement document to join the Bulldogs on four-year deals starting in 2016.

The Knights have until June 30 to convince them to stay put and must fancy their chances based on Sione’s comments at the club’s presentation night earlier this month

‘‘I’m Newcastle through and through. Newcastle is my first option. This is God’s country. I want to stay here with my mum and my family,’’ Sione said.

Bright spots were few and far between, but back-row enforcer Beau Scott was a worthy winner of the club’s Player of the Year award, and he and Sione Mata’utia were named in Australia’s Four Nations squad and Prime Minister’s XIII.

Scott also captained Country Origin, helped NSW take possession of the Origin Shield for the first time since 2005, and was named Dally M second-rower of the year.

Sione Mata’utia will become Australia’s youngest Test representative when he makes his international  debut, aged 18 years and 130 days, against England at AAMI Park on Sunday.

At the October 9 presentation night, captain Kurt Gidley was judged Players’ Player and Sione Mata’utia was named Rookie of the Year.

Scott and McKinnon shared the coach’s award, but Bennett, in his last official duties before taking back the reins at the Broncos, praised the entire squad for showing character amid adversity.

‘‘I just thought there were times I couldn’t be more proud of you. There were times I was extremely disappointed in you, but at the end of the day we all came through together, and I think that’s our greatest legacy that we left in 2014,’’ Bennett said.

‘‘We left the club in pretty good shape, so that when you start 2015 there is a lot of hope, a lot of belief that you can go on and be that team that you want to be, but you can’t do it with all those distractions that happened this year and happened in the last couple of years.

‘‘Great clubs don’t have those issues. 

‘‘Great clubs have problems, but they keep it in house.

‘‘But, to your credit, as I said, I thought you were remarkable at times and I was really proud to be your coach in the end because you were doing your absolute best and that’s all I’ve ever asked of you, as you know.’’