Knights players celebrating a one-point win against the Titans this year. Photo: nrl.com

The Knights backed up their 2020 finals appearance with another in 2021, but how far off competing for a premiership are they?

In the four seasons since their horror one win season in 2016, the Newcastle Knights have been steadily building on the back of a foundation of youth.

After making the step into finals last year, there were big expectations on coach Adam O’Brien and his players this season as they looked to solidify their spot in the finals.

However, after round 19 they were at the bottom end of a five team log jam for the seventh and eighth positions on the ladder, but after winning five straight games between round 19 and 24 the Knights rocketed into seventh position.

The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the year in review for the Newcastle Knights.

What worked?

The Knights tackling was again a feature of their game this year as they averaged 354.2 tackles a game, fourth best in the NRL.

While their tackle number were high the year previous, the Knights improved on their missed tackle count averaging 25.5 per game the second least in the NRL, down from 28.1 in 2020, which was the seventh highest in the NRL.

O’Brien’s men were also very disciplined this season, with the fewest penalties conceded per game, with an average of 3.4.

They also managed to hold onto the ball and get through their sets, averaging 10.1 errors and 8.1 handling errors per game, the fifth fewest in the league, while completing their sets at 79 per cent.

Their ability to complete their sets at such a high rate also allowed their halves to play to their strengths with their kicking.

As a team the Knights averaged 588.5 kicking metres per game, led by mid-season recruit Jake Clifford who racked up 6,206 metres in his 22 games (7th in the NRL), while 300-game veteran Mitchell Pearce racked up 3,705 kicking metres (20th in NRL) in his 12 games.

Jake Clifford in action for the Knights this year. Photo: nrl.com

What didn’t?

The Knights lacked potency in attack this year, and resultantly scored 3.1 points per game less on average, the biggest drop of points in the NRL.

They only had one player in the top 50 try scorers winger Enari Tuala crossing the line for 13 tries, 11 of which came in the last seven games once he made the move from the centres to the wing.

The rest of the squad failed to cross for anymore than nine tries for the season, which could become a real problem moving into the future.

While the team is proven to be a tackling machine that also hasn’t necessarily correlated to the Knights being a defensive power house.

They averaged 23.8 points per game, up from 18.7 the year previous which is the second biggest jump in the league.

If the Knights want to seperate themselves from the middle pack and draw closer to the competitions top six, they will need to improve in these areas but can take solace in the fact they made finals this year despite these numbers.

Who impressed?

After struggling with injury at the back end of last season and early this season, Kalyn Ponga took a big step back into regaining some consistent form and was a big part of the Knights end of season resurgence.

In his 15 games this season he scored eight tries, had 14 try assists, nine linebreaks and 2178 running metres.

As the season progressed his line-breaking speed and agility returned, reminding everyone of how dangerous he can be for the Knights moving forward.

Jake Clifford was recruited from North Queensland Cowboys mid-season and was forced to step up in the absence of Pearce and proved he was well and truly up to the job.

In his 13 games in Knights colours Clifford scored two tries, kicked 33 goals, had seven try assists and 4,311 kicking metres.

With questions surrounding the future of veteran halfback Pearce, the 23-year-old proved he will be part of the Knights halves combination for many years to come.

Star prop Daniel Saifiti put together another fantastic season for the Knights, and is becoming a model of consistency for O’Brien.

The 25-year-old posted some career best numbers this year racking up 3,008 run metres, 1,186 post contact metres and 578 tackles, while equalling his biggest try tally with three.

Saifiti also translated this form into a State of Origin series win with New South Wales, further developing his leadership credentials and experience in the big games.

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Season highlight

As the race for the top eight was heating up, the Knights managed to secure wins over fellow top eight contenders the Raiders and the Sharks amongst a four game win streak heading into round 24. However, as they prepared to battle the Titans the equation was simple, win and and be able to rest up for the finals.

It was a tight affair with the Titans striking first with a Philip Sami try at the four minute mark, from there both teams went try for try as Ponga returned serve at the 23 minute mark, David Fifita crossed at the 37 minute mark while Pearce tied scores in the 70th minute.

It wasn’t just close on the scoreboard as both teams had comparable major stats with Titans taking the slim advantage across the board.

However, it was Pearce who sealed the win and the Knights finals spot as he slotted a field goal in vintage style.

Season lowlight

After their round 17 bye the equation to make the finals was simple for the Knights, win as many games as quickly as possible, but when they faced ladder leaders Melbourne Storm, they looked like a team that lacked urgency.

The Storm piled on eight tries to the Knights one as they dominated every major stat including 848 more run metres, 191 post-contact metres, nine more linebreaks

In what was their biggest loss of the season, the Knights learnt what it needs to take to beat the best as they still chased the finals dream.

Number one off-season priority

The Knights will be looking to remain injury free this offseason and put some time and work into their stars that missed large chunks of this season.

With the likes of Ponga, Pearce and young centre Bradman Best all missing large chunks of the season for various injuries, O’Brien and his high performance staff must ensure they can avoid recurring injuries amongst these key playmakers.

Despite this, injuries happen, and the Knights need to also continue develop their young talent to help step into the hole left by any injuries that may occur.

Adam Clune’s arrival from Dragons will provide cover, and players such as Dominic Young, Stratford To’a and Brayden Musgrove will only continue to approve with yet another preseason under the belts.

Way too early best 17 for 2022

The arrival of Dane Gagai from the Rabbitohs adds much needed defensive help to the Knights backfield, and allow Kurt Mann to be the teams mister fix it off the bench.

There is still a cloud over Pearce’s future with the club but insists he wants to stay, and will line up at halfback if the Knights front office agrees.

The loss of Connor Watson to the Roosters will force O’Brien to choose a new lock which should be the only major change to their forward pack.

Final say

Despite back to back finals appearances the Knights still have work to do if they are to move into the upper echelon of teams in the NRL.

However, with yet another preseason with O’Brien and his core nucleus of talent should hopefully see the Knights continue to have a finals presence.

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