THE Newcastle Knights will need to find a formula for winning away games or they could be playing catch-up football from early in the 2018 NRL season.
The draw for next year, released on Thursday by League HQ, has apparently done the Knights few favours.
Having won only one of their past 25 games away from home, Newcastle face six of their first eight games on the road next season, which will ensure the three-time wooden spooners will be under pressure from the outset. Yet if they can break even during this daunting period they will enjoy a run of home games mid-season.
Wests Group chief executive Phil Gardner said the early schedule could be “a challenge” for Newcastle, but was a byproduct of rival bookings at Hunter Stadium, including the Nitro Circus and A-League finals.
He said from a crowd-drawing perspective, all the Sydney teams would visit Newcastle during the season, which means fans “should get to see the teams they want to see”. “But would we rather have more Sunday games?” he said. “Absolutely. If we could swap two Fridays for two Sundays, that would be perfect.”
He was relieved Newcastle have no Thursday-night games at home, but their four 6pm Friday home fixtures would require lateral thinking to “activate” fans.
Newcastle play six of this season’s top-eight teams – premiers Melbourne, Manly, the Roosters, Penrith, Cronulla and Parramatta – twice.
Throw in their games against Brisbane and North Queensland and 14 of their 24 games will be against 2017 play-off teams.
In comparison, the Roosters play nine games against sides that finished in the top eight this year.
Newcastle open their campaign with a home game against Manly on Friday, March 9 (6pm), then are away against Canberra, the Roosters and St George Illawarra.
In round five they are at home against the Broncos, before consecutive away games against Melbourne, Wests Tigers and Manly.
Between rounds nine and 12, they play three of four games at home. Then between rounds 14 and 21, they play six of seven games at home.
Their schedule winds up with three consecutive away games before a final-round home game against the Dragons on Old Boys Day, Saturday, September 1.
Newcastle’s only away win in the past two years was a 29-10 upset against Parramatta in round 23 this season.
Their previous win on the road was in Melbourne on August 24, 2015.
One bonus for the Knights is that they are one of only three teams who do not have to deal with a five-day turnaround during the season.
They will also play one match at a neutral venue – Tamworth’s Scully Park – against the Tigers in round seven.
Newcastle have been allocated only two games on free-to-air television – against the Dragons in round four (Sunday, 4.10pm), and Parramatta in round 18 (Friday, 7.50pm). Only the Warriors, with one game, make fewer free-to-air appearances. The Broncos (17), Roosters (15), Parramatta (13) and the Cowboys (13) dominate the free-to-air time slots.