Bennett’s Knights on blockbuster mission

THE Knights are on course for their biggest first-round home crowd when they host St George Illawarra at Hunter Stadium tomorrow night.

Newcastle’s record attendance for the first home game of any season is 26,340, set on March 5, 1988, when the Knights kicked off for the first game of their existence against Parramatta.

But membership and ticket sales and general interest point to that 24-year-old record being broken tomorrow when the eyes of the rugby league world focus on Hunter Stadium.

In addition to the club’s ticketed membership base of more than 16,500, almost 11,000 tickets have been snapped up since going on sale two weeks ago.

Knights coach Wayne Bennett was in charge of the visiting team for Newcastle’s first home game last year, on April 3, when the Dragons won 20-18 in front of a crowd of 20,896.

That was the seventh-highest attendance for Newcastle’s first home game.

The game extended St George Illawarra’s winning streak at Hunter Stadium to seven matches and 11 wins from 13 games overall.

‘‘It is ironic as the club enters its 25th season we are on the verge of breaking a 24-year-old club record for the largest attendance at an opening home game of a season,’’ Bennett said.

‘‘It is a great testament to Nathan’s [owner Nathan Tinkler] vision and the way the community have embraced the Knights concept since the takeover.

‘‘I am not surprised that a new opening-round ground record may be achieved, because the interest in this game has been everywhere.

‘‘I have no doubt a big crowd will bring out the best in both teams.’’

Live coverage on free-to-air television through the Nine Network and Hunter affiliate NBN is not expected to have a significant impact on crowd numbers but Knights chief executive Matt Gidley stressed that the game was not a sellout.

Gidley expected that tickets would still be available at the box office tomorrow night but he urged anyone interested in attending to buy tickets to avoid long queues.

At close of business yesterday, fewer than 6000 tickets, which includes about 2000 reserved seats, were still available for the 33,000-capacity stadium.

Gidley said it was impossible to say exactly how many ticketed members would attend the game but he reckoned most would be on hand to witness the first game of the Bennett era.

‘‘With a new coach, a lot of new players in the team, there’s obviously a lot of excitement around town about this game and that is reflected in our membership of nearly 17,000,’’ he said.

‘‘But I still encourage people to not presume the game has been sold out just because we’re kicking off the season.

‘‘We’d certainly like to break that record set in our first ever game, particularly in our 25th year, and make it as tough an environment as possible for the Dragons.

‘‘If we can have a capacity crowd at the stadium for round one, it’s going to give our boys some wonderful confidence and support on Thursday night.

‘‘We want to encourage everyone who’s considering going to the game to jump online or come in and pre-purchase their tickets, because there are still plenty of tickets available, and we’d hate to think that we fell short of capacity just because people presumed it was sold out.’’

The only potential deterrent for patrons is the weather forecast for heavy showers tomorrow.

The Knights have a slightly better than 50per cent record in their first home games of the season, winning 12, losing 11 and drawing one of the 24 they have played.

The ground record of 32,890 was set on October 16 last year at the trans-Tasman Test match, which was Kangaroos skipper Darren Lockyer’s farewell game on Australian soil.

That broke the mark of 32,642, set for the Newcastle-Manly game on July 21, 1995, which remains the biggest crowd for a Knights premiership match.

The smallest crowd for the first home game of any season was 9389 in 1997, when the Knights beat St George 11-6 on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Though that might seem surprising, considering the Knights went on to win their first premiership, it was the first and only year in the game’s history in which rival competitions were staged due to the Super League war.

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