INSPIRATIONAL captain Kurt Gidley says the Knights squad have vowed to make their last season together last as long as possible.
Of the 17 players who took the field in Newcastle’s 40-24 victory over South Sydney at Ausgrid Stadium last Friday, five – Adam MacDougall (retiring), Antonio Kaufusi (London), Isaac De Gois and Mark Taufua (both Sharks) and Cameron Ciraldo (Panthers) – are playing their last season in Newcastle colours.
Another six NRL squad members – Keith Lulia (Bradford), Steve Southern (Wakefield Trinity), Ben Rogers (retiring), Marvin Karawana, Con Mika and Shannon McDonnell – are leaving the club and prop Dan Tolar will consider retirement in the off-season.
Gidley said yesterday at the Sydney Football Stadium at a gathering of the eight finals teams’ captains that the Knights were determined to progress further than their sudden-death qualifying final against minor premiers Melbourne at AAMI Park on Sunday despite being written off by all but themselves and their staunchest supporters.
The rest of the rugby league community are looking forward to the arrival of Wayne Bennett in Newcastle to coach a new-look Knights squad next year but Gidley said coach Rick Stone and the current crop of players were focused on this season.
‘‘The talk about next year is all external, so that’s not spoken about,’’ said Gidley, who has won just one of six games he has played in four previous finals series.
‘‘But what is spoken about is we’ve got some guys moving on and we want to play together for as long as we can through this finals series, so everyone’s excited about it and looking forward to the challenge.
‘‘We don’t want to make the semis and just bow out first week. That’s a big motivator for me.’’
Melbourne are the $3.75 premiership favourites with TAB Sportsbet and the Knights ($51) are the rank outsiders of the eight finalists. In head-to-head betting, Newcastle are rated a $3.75 chance of defeating the Storm ($1.26) and going on to week two.
Gidley disregarded Melbourne’s past two results – a 40-8 loss to the Roosters at Sydney Football Stadium on Sunday night and an 18-4 loss to Manly at Brookvale the previous week.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy rested skipper Cameron Smith, fullback Billy Slater and props Bryan Norrie and Jesse Bromwich from the game against the Roosters, because Melbourne had already secured the minor premiership.
Gidley said he knew not to read anything into the result when he saw Smith in the coach’s box eating a pie.
‘‘We’ll be looking at their better performances before that, when they strung 12 in a row together before they lost to Manly,’’ he said.
‘‘Our series started last week with a do-or-die match against the Rabbits and we had a good performance.
‘‘It’s the ideal preparation you want going into a semi.’’
Gidley suffered a shoulder injury late in the first half of Newcastle’s 42-12 loss to the Storm on April 30 in their only meeting this year but he said the Knights should feel confident of their chances of pulling off an upset if they played to their potential.
‘‘To be honest, we probably had one of our worst performances against Melbourne last year and it was a disappointing one but I always like the challenge of playing against good players and good teams and we need to be at our best this week,’’ he said.
‘‘Defensively we need to work well and work hard for each other but it’s going to be a great experience.
‘‘We’re in the finals and some guys have never played finals before, so you’ve got to make the most of it.’’
AAP REPORTS: Former Newcastle and Melbourne player Clint Newton will return to the NRL with Penrith next season after being granted a release from the final year of his contract with Hull KR.
The 30-year-old, who has signed a two-year deal with the Panthers, said he had applied for the release for family reasons.