A Knight's Tale

Like the Seagulls that dominated field position at AAMI Park last Saturday, the Newcastle Knights were flying high after ending a nine-year drought to finally beat Melbourne on their home turf.

On their giant killing run through the finals, much of the credit has gone to super-coach Wayne Bennett, who is aiming for Newcastle to become the third club he leads to a grand-final victory.

Yet other facts emerge as to why the Knights have ridden out of the NRL finals wilderness in shining armour to reach their first preliminary final since 2001 when they play the Roosters on Saturday night.

Wise spending of cash
It might be said premierships cannot be bought. Try telling that to former billionaire Nathan Tinlker.

In 2010, the Knights found themselves 11th on the ladder and lacking any big name superstars.

This changed in the 2011 takeover by Nathan Tinkler, whose cash provided a lucrative option for many as Newcastle looked to spend the spare change it had under the salary cap.

The big signing was – of course – Bennett, yet he was by no means the only signing.

Former Clive Churchill medalist and Queensland representative Darius Boyd, NSW forward Beau Scott and New Zealand international Jeremy Smith followed Bennett up the eastern seaboard.

Add into the mix Neville Costigan, who joined the club in 2011, and Newcastle had now pulled off signings that had a total of six premierships between them.

However experience is only successful if mixed with youth, such as the purchases of exciting Joseph Leilula and Dane Gaigai, who have provided flare and youthful exuberance amongst the outside backs.

The flare this pair provided was the ingredient lacking in the 2012 season for the Knights, who had failed to find young talent to compromise their big established names.

In the back end of 2013 these players have all found their feet at Newcastle and have added knowledge of success and a sparkle that was lacking from the team in the past.

A strong foundation of born and bred talent
Newcastle is a breeding ground for rugby league legends, proven by their development of Andrew Johns and Clive Churchill.

The premiership teams of 1997 and 2001 consisted of a strong cohort of local boys, such as the Johns brothers, Paul Harragon and Matt Gidley.

A star of that 2001 team was Danny Buderus, the Taree product who rose out of the grave to return to the NRL after a three year stint in England.

At 35, Buderus provides the link to the great Knights teams of the past and his experience has been crucial to Newcastle’s success.

If Bennett threw a life-raft to Buderus, he would have needed one of Newcastle harbour’s coal ships to drag the career of former Australian forward Willie Mason out of the wilderness, in an effort that would rival the Pasha Bulker as the biggest salvage mission ever to take place on Newcastle’s shores.

Defying all expectations, the Toronto Scorpions junior has been fantastic on his return home and has turned into the unlikely leader of the dominant Knights forward pack.

Alex McKinnon has too returned home and has been instrumental with Mason in the forwards this season.

Add into the mix already established local players, such as Jarod Mullen and youngster Tyrone Roberts, and Newcastle yet again has become a team that has expanded out of its own roots.

On an administrative level, the club is now governed by Knights legend Matt Gidley, who took over as CEO in 2011.

These born-and-bred Newcastle boys allow for a greater connection of the Knights to local community, creating a team culture that understands what it means to pull on the red and the blue.

Of course the influence of Bennett cannot be overlooked and his seasoned ability to knock teams into shape come September is a proven fact.

Yet as a wise politician famously said, “it doesn’t explain everything, nor does it explain nothing”. This can be seen in relation to Bennett’s tenure with the Knights.

He is one ingredient in a mixture that is beginning to mold itself into a recipe of success.

There is a blend of experienced campaigners and youth, local products and new signings who add flare and an understanding of success to a club that has lacked so much of it in recent times.

These factors ensure a football team is more than a coach; it is a culture, the real reason behind the rise of the Newcastle Knights.