Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

PATIENT: Knights coach Nathan Brown has endured two tough years but has assembled a squad capable of making progress this season. Picture: Marina Neil
PATIENT: Knights coach Nathan Brown has endured two tough years but has assembled a squad capable of making progress this season. Picture: Marina Neil

AFTER the week that was, it seems a tad surreal to remember that our town’s two main teams, the Knights and Jets, remain the incumbent wooden spooners of their respective competitions.

The Jets outgunned Melbourne Victory last Saturday to maintain a firm grip on second position, four points clear of their nearest rivals.

Providing they don’t suffer any late-season altitude sickness – and there appear no signs of that happening – they’ll be involved in the A-League finals after seven years as also-rans, and in all likelihood hosting at least one play-off at McDonald Jones Stadium.

At this point in proceedings, they look the one team capable of causing runaway leaders Sydney FC to keep an anxious eye on the rear-view mirror.

Newcastle’s W-League team, meanwhile, have already qualified for the do-or-die phase of the season for the first time in nine years, and on Saturday will face Sydney at Leichhardt Oval.

All of which has put smiles on the faces of world-game aficionados and, in the process, left the ball squarely in the court of Knights coach Nathan Brown and his new-look squad. Regardless of how many consecutive spoons they have collected (three, if for some reason you’d lost count), Newcastle’s NRL franchise are still the No.1 team in town, but this is all about keeping up appearances.

And on that front, the Knights upheld their end of the bargain on Wednesday when they travelled to Melbourne for their first trial match of the pre-season, and emerged with a heartening 26-22 victory against the reigning premiers.

Sure, there were no competition points up for grabs, and Test stars Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Will Chambers were spectators, not participants.

But Newcastle also had three first-teamers unavailable – Daniel Saifiti, Mitch Barnett and new signing Tautau Moga – all of whom are recovering from shoulder reconstructions.

Regardless of who was in or out, the result added weight to the theory that the Knights are more than capable of emulating the Jets and not merely climbing out of the competition cellar, but ascending the ladder at a rate of knots.

Certainly their multi-million dollar recruitment drive has delivered a host of proven big-game performers – in particular Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman – and some dynamic up-and-comers, in Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson and Herman Ese’ese.

Suddenly Knights fans are piecing together hypothetical round-one squads and daring to dream, which is in complete contrast to 12 months ago, when only the most optimistic gave them any hope of avoiding another stony-motherless finish.

That the Knights will improve seems a fair accompli. If they don’t, Brown will be joining the long line of ex-sporting coaches in the queue at Centrelink.

The great unknown is how far they will progress up the points table, and how rapidly.

Brown is loath to make any predictions about the finals, insisting that this season will be all about establishing combinations as quickly as possible and “competing hard”.

“Where that takes us, we’ll see,” he has often said. That’s straight from Sports Psychology 101: concentrate on the process, not the result.

His players, however, and the club’s long-suffering supporters have their eyes on a top-eight berth for the first time since the 2013 campaign.

Can they deliver?

Fans deserve to be hopeful, even confident. But this columnist prefers to remain impartial and realistic.

And the big question is how many spots in the play-offs will actually be up for grabs.

From Sporting Declaration’s viewpoint, you can lock in Sydney Roosters and the Cowboys. Cronulla, although their squad is ageing, have depth and quality that few rivals can match.

Melbourne will undoubtedly miss Cooper Cronk, Tohu Harris, Jordan McLean and Slade Griffin, but does anyone dare doubt them?

Parramatta, if Jarryd Hayne performs, will surely be stronger than last season, and James Maloney can potentially give Penrith an extra dimension.

I’ll be surprised if any of those six teams miss the finals.

St George Illawarra and Canterbury, after top-dollar signings in key positions, will be expecting to finish higher than last year, while Manly will be intent on proving the 2017 play-off appearance was no fluke.

Brisbane might struggle, after the loss of Adam Blair, Ben Hunt, Moga and Ese’ese, while Canberra and the Warriors – both underachievers last year – are the competition’s greatest enigmas.

Few will give Wests Tigers or Gold Coast much hope, but both clubs will probably be quite happy to fly under the radar and prove their doubters wrong.

Where does that leave the Knights? It would be un-Novocastrian to say they can’t make the finals, but much will hinge on how they handle a tough schedule of six road trips in their opening eight games.

If they can break even during that period, a long-overdue appearance at the business end of the season might well be within the realms of possibility.

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