Building a fortress on Stone platform

FOR Rick Stone, it is all about the here and now.

The arrival of master coach Wayne Bennett next year might rate as one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the history of the Newcastle Knights, but as far as Stone is concerned there is plenty to be achieved in the interim.

Newcastle's performances in the first seven rounds of the NRL season suggest Stone and his troops have not allowed the hype surrounding Bennett to undermine their focus.

In the two games since the Bennett deal was announced, Stone's troops have registered gritty victories against Cronulla and Canberra.

With four wins from seven games, they sit seventh on the NRL points table - a promising launch pad they hope to convert into a play-offs position.

But it is not only at NRL level that the Knights have been making their presence felt.

Right through the grades, their teams are well placed.

Their NSW Cup feeder team, Central Coast Centurions, are running fourth after five wins in their first seven games.

Newcastle's National Youth Competition (under-20) outfit are 10th (three wins, four losses), but were in the top eight before losing successive games after primary playmaker Tyrone Roberts was promoted to first grade.

The Knights also advanced last weekend to the semi-finals of the S G Ball (under-18) and Harold Matthews (under-16) competitions.

The S G Ball tyros tackle Parramatta and the Harold Matthews fledglings battle Canterbury for a berth in their grand finals. Both games are on Saturday.

To put that into context, Newcastle have not won a Ball premiership since 2004 and last claimed the Matthews title in 2000.

And the Newcastle Rugby League under-18 representative side, who are defending titleholders, will meet the Central Hunter Power in the semi-final of the NSW Country championships.

The grassroots success is no fluke.

Since replacing Brian Smith as Newcastle's head coach in late 2009, Stone has made it a priority to nurture Newcastle's vast junior nursery, which stretches from the Central Coast to Port Macquarie, inland to the Upper Hunter and Tamworth.

He says much of the credit must go to Newcastle's strategic development manager Keith Onslow, who has helped implement a development "pathway" that links all teams, players and coaches in the region from junior level up, and sports science staff Tim Rogers and Lee Clark, who have overseen strength and conditioning programs.

According to the NSW Rugby League annual report last year, the Knights did more coach education, school visits and community-based development than any other club.

In 2008, Newcastle's Ball team had 48.3 per cent local or regional content. That is now 100 per cent content, as is the Matthews squad.

Stone predicted the famous Newcastle production line, which produced so many superstars during the club's golden era, now had the potential to become "the best in our history".

"In the last couple of years we've really put some emphasis on the principles of our club and what we're doing at NRL level, and feeding that back down to the juniors," Stone said.

Onslow felt sure that Bennett would appreciate the groundwork when he arrives here next year.

"Having known Wayne Bennett for 30 years, and knowing a bit about his philosophies and his likes and dislikes in footballers and football clubs, I can be pretty confident in saying that he will like what he sees in this footy club," Onslow said.

"He'll be confident in what I would call the physical resources available to him at this club, this district and this region."

And even though Stone is likely to be working as Bennett's right-hand man next year, he firmly believes there is no time like the present.

"We've got our club in a pretty good position in all grades," Stone said.

"We've got chance to achieve a lot, right now, in 2011.

"Give us a couple of weeks and we'll have some quality players back from injury and our [NRL] team will look a lot stronger.

"Our junior reps are going into their semi-finals this weekend. There's a good production line and a good infrastructure."

And if the future looks bright, Stone says it will just have to wait, for the here and the now.

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