The long-held theory in the NRL is that a player rarely reaches his peak until about four seasons of getting used to the rigors of everyday life.
In Adam O’Brien’s case the same could be true.
During the first three years of his first stint as head coach in the NRL at Newcastle, he appeared frustrated with a team that was not delivering the rate of improvement he expected on the field.
Last year he received a lot of ridicule when he pointed out that he had been “involved in four Grand Finals” from his previous stints as an assistant coach with Melbourne and the Roosters.
“I know how these teams have prepared. I know the systems they used defensively,” he claimed after his team lost at home to the leadless Bulldogs, who had already sacked their coach. “You don’t forget this knowledge. It will certainly take some time to apply and embed it.”
He blamed the club’s culture from many years before, a comment that did not go down well with many of Newcastle’s old boys.
This is a blue-collar club that punched well above its weight in its first two decades in the big leagues thanks to a combination of investing in local talent and fielding players with a steely city work ethic.
“Be the player everyone wants to play with” was a phrase coined by founding coach Allan McMahon that has been passed down through generations since the 1997 team and shocked Manly by winning the ARL premiership four years later to their colleagues, the one of them succeeded The big robberies in the Grand Final embarrassed red-hot favorites Parramatta.
At some point the spirit of the Knights was lost when Nathan Tinkler took over the leadership of the club by making numerous promises to his mining empire, which was quickly declining.
Until their 30-28 overtime win over Canberra on Sunday afternoon, the Knights had not won a finals game following the Tinkler fiasco.
It was their first playoff win since Wayne Bennett led them from seventh place to the preliminary final a decade ago, with upsets over Canterbury and Melbourne before being eliminated by eventual premiers the Roosters.
Rick Stone was the sacrificial lamb in the season following Bennett’s return to Brisbane and Nathan Brown endured the pain of two more wooden spoon seasons but was relegated in 2019 when he still failed to achieve success despite a decent Newcastle squad.
Since then, O’Brien has done well but seemed neither happy nor confident about his long-term future.
After enduring the ax last year after coming off two straight seasons of back-to-back finals appearances in the lower bracket, it seemed like 2023 would be his last time in charge as the Knights fell in Round 9 with one We ended up in 14th place with a 3-1 win. 5 record.
The likes of Des Hasler, John Morris, Paul McGregor and Justin Holbrook have been mooted as potential successors as coach.
Traveling to Penrith in Round 17, the Premiers did not bother playing their State of Origin contingent, despite losing their previous game against North Queensland due to the unavailability of their stars.
The Panthers still managed to beat the Knights 20-12 and the drums were beating that O’Brien was on his way out.
They responded with a 66-0 thrashing of Canterbury and a win over the Tigers, which proved little beyond the mediocrity of their opponents, but when they beat the Storm at McDonald Jones Stadium in Round 21, a hint of momentum blossomed into A model of self-confidence and now they have 10 wins for the second time in the club’s history.
The Knights can equalize their record by beating the Warriors in Auckland on Saturday to secure a trip to Brisbane for a preliminary final with the Broncos.
O’Brien admitted last offseason after a long, proverbial look in the proverbial mirror that he had been soft on his players at times.
Young coaches who don’t adapt immediately rarely get their first contract or get another contract elsewhere.
Reports are now emerging that O’Brien will be offered another contract that will take him until the end of 2026, and while it is unlikely the Knights will engage in a bidding war for his services any time soon, he has secured himself a new contract secured.
When they let their player of the year winner, David Klemmer, leave for Wests Tigers, they raised eyebrows and stumbled upon their first-choice playmaker almost by accident.
They had campaigned for the Wests to release Luke Brooks, but when the NRL’s most short-sighted club opted to show Jackson Hastings the door instead, the Knights signed the on-field organizer they had been missing since Mitchell Pearce had taken up a new office for France in 2010 at the end of 2021.
Although journeyman Adam Clune has done a good job replacing Hastings in recent weeks, his absence this weekend is significant.
Like his coach, Hastings took a while to find his niche by playing to his strengths rather than trying to be a superstar.
The Knights already have one of those in Kalyn Ponga and since the captain moved back from the five-eighth position to full-back he has given them the touch of class in attack that they needed.
If he had worn a green jersey last Sunday, the Raiders would have won.
Ponga has been the difference between a solid Knights side and one capable of defeating not only the Storm, but also the Sharks and Rabbitohs during their late season surge.
If you ignore the nine games he played in two seasons as a Cowboy, Ponga is in his sixth season as a full first-year player at Newcastle and you can tell he is finally in full command of the field.
He was always talented, never lacking in brilliance, but until this year, consistency wasn’t a friend of his.
Saturday’s game marks just the third time in his career since his debut in 2016 that he has played 20 games and his 21 assists on tries and 19 line breaks are both highs for the 25-year-old full-back.
Not only has O’Brien brought the best out of Hastings and Ponga, but of the Knights players who have been there for at least three seasons, there are ten in total who have never played better.
Either they all have enough experience to keep up with their game, but are not in the veteran class where injuries can affect a player’s peak physical performance.
|Bradman Best||Fifth season||69 games|
|Dominic Young||Third season||50 games|
|Kalyn Ponga||Eighth season||116 games|
|Greg Marzhew||Third season||46 games|
|Jackson Hastings||Seventh (NRL) season||85 games|
|Tyson Gamble||Fifth season||48 games|
|Phoenix Crossland||Fifth season||59 games|
|Jacob Saifiti||Eighth season||141 games|
|Daniel Saifiti||Eighth season||160 games|
|Jack Hetherington||Seventh season||69 games|
And yes, the last line of the table is correct – Jack Hetherington played all 25 games for Newcastle.
Aside from a few stupid penalties for slapping opponents when provoked, he not only didn’t get suspended, but also made a valuable contribution to their pack.
It’s quite a turnaround for someone who had only made 43 appearances in six seasons at three previous clubs.
https://www.theroar.com.au/2023/09/14/knight-fever-obrien-owns-up-to-mistakes-to-restore-blue-collar-ethic-to-newcastle/ O'Brien admits his mistakes to help Newcastle regain a blue-collar ethic