For The Newcastle Knights, Their Revolution Must Start Now
The Newcastle Knights have been tipped to make big improvements every year since 2018.
While they have improved slightly year-on-year, they've never quite hit the heights set throughout the preseason. So, here we go again in 2021......
Poor home form has played a major role in Newcastle's slow start to the year with the Wests Tigers and St. George-Illawarra Dragons both allowed to take the two points away from McDonald Jones Stadium already this season. Double-digit defeats sandwiched a close win at home over the Sharks in Round 6 before the Sydney Roosters embarrassed the Knights in Round 9.
These results aren't the "we're almost there if we can clean up some errors and have a few players come back" sort. Instead they're the "we're in trouble and O'Brien might not be the one for the job" sort.
So, where has it all gone wrong this time, and how does he fix it?
Where it's gone wrong
The Knights are dwindling at 11th on the NRL ladder with three wins in eight games. It's not panic stations, nor is it time to put a line through them as a Top-8 side, but questions are quite rightfully being asked of their ability to take the next step.
This season 'should' be the one it all starts to come together for the Knights. Instead, they are trending downward on some key numbers.
The Knights attack is producing more line-breaks per game in 2021 compared with 2020 (4.3 v 4.0) but scoring fewer points (17.1 v 21.0). At the same time, the Knights are missing fewer tackles (24.6 v 28.1) but conceding more points (25.5 v 18.7).
Few would argue that a forward pack centred around David Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti is their strength, but both are down on their 2020 yardage averages. Klemmer has dropped from 172 metres per game in 2020 to 159 metres per game in 2021. Meanwhile, Saifiti is nine metres behind his average from last season to average 135 running metres per game in this one.
While it doesn't all come down to the starting props, the Knights are running for almost 150 fewer metres to be 11th in the NRL with 1,616 metres per game.
Newcastle's lack of yardage creates only 24.1 opportunities inside the opposition 20-metre line per game - the fourth-fewest in the competition. Such is their unfamiliarity with good ball position, the Knights didn't know what to do with the 38 tackles they were provided with against the Roosters in Round 8.
The left side with Kalyn Ponga sweeping out the back is quite obviously Newcastle's best and most consistent attacking weapon. They scored 48% of their total tries across the 2019 and 2020 seasons down that side of the field. While Ponga's early absence has no doubt had an impact overall, to have scored only eight of their 24 tries this season (33%) down the left edge is a slight cause for concern. Particularly given the struggles they had last week despite a rookie halfback regularly shooting out at Ponga.
The Knights failed to adjust the way they moved the ball through that channel and scored only one try, albeit a beauty, down the left edge before shutting up shop on that side.
Mitchell Pearce's unavailability is an obvious issue, and his influence on the side only ever seems to be truly acknowledged when he is out due to injury. Jayden Brailey's quality out of dummy half made Pearce's job a lot easier to start the season. The Knights spine showed plenty of potential while waiting for Ponga to return in the early rounds. However, the turnover in spine players has ultimately added another wrinkle to Newcastle's struggles in attack.
|Round 1||Tex Hoy||Kurt Mann||Mitchell Pearce||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 2||Tex Hoy||Phoenix Crossland||Mitchell Pearce||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 3||Tex Hoy||Kurt Mann||Mitchell Pearce||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 4||Tex Hoy||Kurt Mann||Mitchell Pearce||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 5||Kalyn Ponga||Connor Watson||Blake Green||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 6||Kalyn Ponga||Kurt Mann||Blake Green||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 7||Kalyn Ponga||Kurt Mann||Blake Green||Jayden Brailey|
|Round 8||Kalyn Ponga||Kurt Mann||Blake Green||Jayden Brailey|
The Knights are yet to play with their first-choice spine in 2021 and face another change in Round 9 with Phoenix Crossland named alongside Kurt Mann in the halves to face the Canberra Raiders. A turnover in key-playmaking positions doesn't begin to justify the basic errors and defensive lapses that have plagued the Knights in recent weeks, though.
We only need to look at what happened against the Sydney Roosters in Round 8 to see where things are going wrong for the Knights without the ball.
Mann only needed to fall on the loose ball before Daniel Tupou scored his second try of the night ten minutes in last week.
Enari Tuala had a nightmare cleaning up a grubber (which had shades of a few Gehamat Shibasaki efforts earlier in the year) which led to Angus Crichton claiming an easy four-pointer.
Brayden Musgrove couldn't defuse a Roosters bomb, and Brett Morris cleaned up the scraps to send Matt Ikuvalu over the line.
Just like that, the scoreboard read 20-0 after 20 minutes with the game was all but over.
Edrick Lee and Hymel Hunt's return from injury will help to improve the overall consistency of the Knights outside backs. Hunt, in particular, has become one of O'Brien's most reliable players over the last season. They're unlikely to change Newcastle's fortunes on their own, though.
A team playing without an influential halfback that touches the ball over 60 times per game will always struggle somewhat. Pearce is irreplaceable in this side whether he is playing particularly well at the time or not. But there's more going wrong at the Knights than what Pearce's return can fix.
We don't see the positive actions that suggest they are a quality halfback away from producing regularly, or the platform being laid that could translate into quality halfback play. Defensively, the Knights are behind the pace and Pearce's return will have little impact on improving that side of the ball.
He's still 6-8 weeks away, so what can the Knights do until then to ensure they finish the season strong with Pearce back in the side?
Fixing the Knights in 2021
Like last week when looking at fixing the Wests Tigers, we first look at the Knights middle.
They adopted a direct style through the centre-third to start the season. Brailey played his forwards onto the advantage line and the likes of Klemmer and Saifiti had only one job - to run it straight. The ploy worked for Klemmer to average an impressive 184.5 running metres per game across the opening month.
Since then, however, he has managed only 134 metres per game.
Third in one-pass hitups at 83.9 per game, 12th in general play passes with 84.1 per game, and last in line engagements with only 23.9, opposition defences know what is coming.
Playing directly through the middle isn't a bad approach, but players need to be efficient in their carries. Ball carriers need to have the legs to apply late footwork at the line or push through tackles. Right now, and we're going back to Klemmer as the prime example, the bench isn't being rotated often enough for the Knights to keep the pack rolling for the full 80 minutes.
Klemmer is averaging almost 60 minutes per game. While capable of big minutes, Adam O'Brien might be better served with taking a 'less is more' stance on Klemmer and his output. Use the bench to spell Klemmer in more traditional prop rotation time periods and see if he can be more effective in fewer minutes.
Again against the Roosters, Sauaso Sue and Jacob Saifiti played 36 minutes and 29 minutes. Both averaged over 10 metres per carry. Brodie Jones played just 15 minutes on Saturday night. He's the only Knights forward (min. 4 games) that averaged over ten metres per carry this season. Still, he has touched the ball only four times for two runs in the last fortnight. Young prop Pasami Saulo rounded out the Knight bench in Round 8 with 67 running metres in 16 minutes.
Josh King didn't even get off the bench a week earlier.
The Knights have the cattle to lay the sort of platform a cohesive spine can produce behind in attack. If they can work smarter and not harder, we might begin to see that by the time Pearce returns.
Ponga can also begin to refine the Knights left edge attack if he is given more opportunities to iron out the kinks. One change to that side that could aid in the improvement is the reintroduction of Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
He's a vanilla back-rower in the grand scheme of things, but he's exactly what Ponga and the left edge needs to start breaking down defences. Fitzgibbon is a far superior hole-runner to Mitch Barnett. He can time the inside line that compacts the defence and put Bradman Best one-on-one with his defender. If Fitzgibbon can hold the three-in defender just as Angus Crichton did for the Roosters to score their first last week, the Knights will soon return to their best down the left side.
That try should be one Ponga, Best and Fitzgibbon pore over all week while talking to Connor Watson about his Radley-like role to begin the action.
Finally, Newcastle's defence.
Like last week with the Tigers, there is only so much you can talk about how a team defends and the numbers behind it. Adam O'Brien talked about the Knights taking "some backwards steps in terms of competing and that scramble we had last week" while also referring to a possible lack of confidence and the need to "compete a lot harder."
He implied a lack of effort is the cause for conceding 62 points across the last fortnight.
The Knights kept themselves in games through a hard-working scramble defence last season. O'Brien needs to recapture that level of intensity, and it may come through a better use of the bench and more efficient play from their key influencers.
The Stats Insider Futures Model put the Newcastle Knights firmly in the finals conversation before Round 1 with a 47.7% chance of ending Round 25 inside the Top-8. Heading into their Round 9 clash against the Raiders, the Knights are down to 31.9%.
Many of the most optimistic fans and media members would have circled 2021 as a year the Knights begin competing for the premiership when this rebuild started to accelerate in 2018. The model has all but put a line through them with just a 0.7%chance of lifting the Provan-Summons Trophy.
So much of the remaining 16 rounds depends on the health of a handful of players and the recovery of others. Newcastle hasn't had a lot of luck in the injury department over the last 18 months. Still, there isn't enough to suggest that a healthy Knights side instantly plays to a Top-8 calibre.
The middle needs to offer either more versatility or increase the impact and effectiveness of their direct approach. Defensive improvements will come from there as, at worst, the Knights spend more time defending in the opposition half and less time under pressure on their own goal line.
We saw the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks start the 2020 season similarly poorly before sneaking into the Top 8. That's an achievable goal for the Knights from Round 9 onwards.
While the Knights have the third-easiest schedule for the remainder of this season, their resurgence needs to start this week. Win or lose, the conversation needs to feature positives on both sides of the ball when the final whistle blows on Saturday.
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