THE intense summer heat has gone. A cool morning breeze shuffles in from the west. Autumn is here, and with it, comes the start of the biggest sporting attraction of all in these parts, the National Rugby League.
After a pre-season mercifully free of major controversy – at least as far as the Newcastle Knights are concerned – the 2018 season is under way, with Newcastle playing its first game of the season at home on Friday evening to the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
Given the club’s recent history – three wooden spoons in as many years – it is beyond a cliche to say that from here on, the only way is up. As is the case at this time every year since the inaugural season in 1988, the players who will run out in the red and blue are carrying the expectations of the entire region on their shoulders.
It is often said that Knights fans do not care so much whether the team wins or loses, only that they give their all when they are on the field. There is an element of this, especially as far as the more parochial, rusted-on supporters are concerned, but there is no doubt that a winning season does more to put a spring in the region’s step than a losing one, and with the club’s ownership problems finally behind them – under new owners Wests – a lot is expected from a team full of new, high-profile recruits.
Success on the field is also central to building match-day support, as the growing crowds cheering their round-ball counterparts, the Newcastle Jets, attest. The Jets have set a benchmark for entertainment this A-League season, and have been rewarded as one of only two teams – the other is Adelaide – to lift their attendance figures.
The Knights, too, will be banking on bigger crowds this year. The corporate response since Wests took over has been clearly supportive, but it will take committed performances on the field, and a regular 20,000-plus crowd, to again see opposing teams fear a trip to a ground we like to think of as “the fortress”.
As rugby league writer Robert Dillon has noted, the Knights won two premierships and made the finals eight times in their first 15 years. Since then, they’ve made the finals five times, collected four wooden spoons and “never looked like winning a title”.
Hopefully, this year, the tide will turn, because the further that our premiership years of 1997 and 2001 recede into the distance, the longer the shadows they throw. Here’s hoping 2018 is another season for the ages.