Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

A BIT more than two years ago, then Newcastle Jets coach Phil Stubbins walked into a post-match press conference, and before he had even taken his seat or been asked a question, exclaimed: “So that’s how it feels, hey?”

Stubbins’ satisfied expression was obvious and understandable.

It was round 11 and he had just won his first game as an A-League coach, 2-1 at home against Adelaide.

It had been a long time coming, and he was perhaps entitled to savour the moment.

Unfortunately for the likeable but hapless Englishman, it would be another 11 games before his team registered their next win.

In the interim, he had to endure a club-record 7-0 hammering, five other defeats and eventually an internal rebellion that led to a host of players and coaching staff being sacked.

Come the end of the season, after the demise of owner Nathan Tinkler, it was no surprise that Stubbins was punted. Regardless of how good a coach he may or may not have been, he was basically doomed before a ball had been kicked.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Stubbins might have been wise to consider the old saying about one swallow not making a summer after his breakthrough win.

Knights coach Nathan Brown was not about to make the same mistake this week after his team ended a club-record 19-game losing streak with a 34-26 triumph against Gold Coast last weekend. Brown and his players were all smiles on Saturday, and so they should have been.

But when training resumed on Monday, the coach was his usual pragmatic self.

Delighted as he may have been about the morale boost his players had received, he was also quick to caution them against resting on their laurels.

“Let’s hope that the confidence they get out of that helps them push forward,’’ Brown said.

“What we want them to do is certainly get some confidence out of winning and the good feeling they get, and see some reasons why they won the game.

“But winning at NRL level is hard. Winning week in, week out, is hard.

“There were sides that had great wins in the first round that came out and had results that were pretty much the complete opposite at the weekend. 

“For them to slacken off in any way would be disappointing, because we’re far from the finished product.’’

Indeed, Brown’s non-committal response to a simple question – “Are you confident that you won’t finish last this season?” – perhaps gave an insight into his mindset.

“My confidence was always that we would have a lot of improvement,’’ he said.

“The consistency of it now is going to be the real key, and obviously keeping people on the field … at the moment, we’ve certainly had a far better start than last year and getting that consistency is going to be challenge for us now.’’

Perhaps behind the scenes, Brown is confident that Newcastle will avoid the ignominy of a third straight wooden spoon.

Maybe he doesn’t want to put pressure on his players, or risk overconfidence. Quite possibly he is in no hurry to surrender the long-shot underdogs label, which can be an advantage.

But he has also been coaching long enough to realise that Newcastle will face far more formidable challenges than Gold Coast last weekend.

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, the footballing gods smiled kindly on the Knights for the first time in almost 12 months. If they couldn’t beat a rival depleted by injuries to three players – including superstar Jarryd Hayne – on home soil, then who knows when their losing run would have ended.

That they were good enough to seal the deal was evidence of the progress Brown’s young tyros are making. Last season they would not have been capable of overturning a four-point deficit with two tries in the last five minutes of a game.

It will be crucial for them to carry that momentum into Saturday’s showdown with South Sydney at McDonald Jones Stadium.

The clash with Souths is the start of a five-game block that should give us a better idea of Newcastle’s prospects this season.

After the Rabbitohs, they face Penrith (away), Cronulla (away), Canterbury (home), Roosters (home) and North Queensland (away), before the return bout with Gold Coast.

It’s a daunting schedule that would test any club, but also shapes as a chance for the Knights to enhance their reputations.

There seems little doubt that, on the evidence of their 44-0 trial thrashing of Canberra, narrow round-one loss to the Warriors and win against the Titans, Newcastle will be a stronger, more competitive outfit this season.

This time last year, alarm bells were deafening after heavy losses to Gold Coast (30-12) and Souths (48-6).

Brown had already blooded five rookies by that stage and they were presumably feeling out of their depth.

Now the L-platers of last season should realise their opponents have two arms and two legs and aren’t made of titanium-reinforced concrete.

If they can keep reproducing the effort and enthusiasm of last week, it might not be long before such wins are expected, rather than cause for joyous celebration.

A LONG TIME COMING: Knights fans celebrated for the first time in 11 months after last week's win against Gold Coast. Picture: Getty Images

A LONG TIME COMING: Knights fans celebrated for the first time in 11 months after last week's win against Gold Coast. Picture: Getty Images