Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

IF the Wests Group need a reminder of the challenge they face in resurrecting the Knights, they should look no further than Newcastle’s past three opponents: St George Illawarra, the Warriors and Parramatta. 

HIGHS AND LOWS: Warriors players congratulate their Newcastle counterparts after last week's clash at McDonald Jones Stadium. Picture: Darren Pateman: AAP

HIGHS AND LOWS: Warriors players congratulate their Newcastle counterparts after last week's clash at McDonald Jones Stadium. Picture: Darren Pateman: AAP

Three clubs, hundreds of millions of dollars in players’ wages, and only one premiership between them in the past 31 years.

And even that grand final victory, by the Dragons in 2010, had a slightly hollow feel about it, given that defending champions Melbourne Storm were ineligible after being stripped of all their points for salary-cap breaches.

Other than that solitary success, there has been precious little to celebrate for the fans of all three clubs.

Before 2010, Saints’ previous title was way back in 1979.

The Eels have won nothing since that famous day in 1986 when Pricey and the Crow bowed out in a blaze of glory.

And the Warriors, who have now been in Australia’s premier competition since 1995, remain the most enigmatic of under-achievers. The closest they have come to a lap of honour is finishing runners-up in 2002 and 2011.

It is hard not to observe that these three clubs enjoy advantages many their rivals are entitled to envy.

The St George Dragon is arguably the most famous brand in rugby league, an iconic club since their record 11 consecutive premierships between 1956 and 1966.

Throw in their merger with Illawarra, and they also have access to a supply line of talent from south of Sydney.

Parramatta are supported by a rich leagues club and traditionally have been a dominant force at under-age representative level, thanks to their extensive junior nursery.

The Warriors, of course, are the only NRL club based in New Zealand. They could potentially be a juggenaut yet they remain perenially dysfunctional and last week’s insipid 26-10 loss to the Knights was another example of the club’s lack of direction.

Moreover, their under-20s, who have won a record three National Youth Competition titles in its nine-season existence, were humiliated 70-4 by Newcastle.

All of which puts the recent history of the Knights in context.

Novocastrians think they’ve been doing it tough. Sixteen years have passed since the club’s last premiership, and they have been play-off spectators for the past four seasons.

Yet Parramatta, inexplicably, have not featured in the finals since 2009, nor have the Warriors since their last grand final appearance six years ago.

Even the mighty Brisbane Broncos, despite their unmatched corporate and crowd support, have not won a premiership for 11 seasons.

Cronulla (2014), the Roosters (2009), Bulldogs (2008), Eels (2012-13) and South Sydney (2003-04 and 2006) have all finished in the cellar in the relatively recent past.

The NRL is a fiercely competitive, dog-eat-dog environment. For most teams, success and failure are cyclical.

Theoretically, in a salary cap era in which each club has an opportunity to spend as much on players as their rivals, everyone has the same chance to come first or last. Bearing that in mind, it is almost as notable a feat for the Knights to finish – as they are in danger of doing – as three-time wooden spooners as it is for a team to win a hat-trick of premierships.

To put that in perspective, only four clubs (thus far) have collected three successive spoons, and only five clubs have been champions in three or more consecutive seasons.

But what is truly remarkable is that the Knights, after all they have endured since the brief spike of reaching the grand final qualifier in 2013, find themselves in a position where the outlook seems optimistic.

Not only are the thriving Wests Group poised to take over the embattled franchise, hopefully providing financial security and astute management, but there is genuine cause to believe, after consecutive wins against the Dragons, Warriors and Eels, that a corner has been turned in terms of on-field results.

Certainly Knights coach Nathan Brown has more reason to feel his team are heading in the right direction than, for example, Stephen Kearney or Des Hasler.

Andrew Johns, for one, is predicting Newcastle’s new-look squad can challenge for a finals berth next season, and Wests CEO Phil Gardner says the goal is to eventually produce a top-four team “four years or out every five”.

What will it take to build a team capable of winning a premiership?

Stability will be the key. The most successful clubs in the NRL have long-term coaches, good operators in the front office, and a nucleus of players who stick together for a large part of their careers.

The other essential ingredient is to have at least one champion player on the roster. If your team features a Johns, a Thurston, an Inglis, a Gallen or – in the case of Melbourne, a trio of all-time greats – at some point you are almost guaranteed a shot.

The Knights don’t possess such a player … yet.

Will Kalyn Ponga develop into that type of talisman?

If he does, then the angst Knights supporters have experienced over the past few seasons might eventually be accepted as a small price to pay.