19/04/2024

Kalyn Ponga now gets the chance to play finals rugby after leading the Knights into seventh spot (Photo - NRL.com)

The Knights came from nowhere to finish in seventh this NRL season, but how did they manage to finish so hot?

With six weeks to go in the 2021 NRL season, the Newcastle Knights looked to be teetering on the edge of missing finals action.

Possessing the quality of Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce, the Knights were dangerously close to crushing finals expectations and wasting another campaign.

Stuck in a pack with many teams vying on the edge of the eight, including the Gold Coast Titans, Cronulla Sharks and Canberra Raiders, the Knights knew they would need something special to finish off the season with a bang and emerge ahead of their opponents in the top eight come seasons’ end.

It wouldn’t be easy. Having been smacked by the ladder-leading Storm 48-4 and then comfortably beaten 28-8 by the Roosters the week after, Newcastle would have to change many things structurally if they were to beat the odds and correct their path back towards a destination inside the top eight. Here’s how they did it.

Trusting their own recruits

Instead of reinventing the wheel, the Knights freed up the talent they already possessed. One major player in the back half of their season was Jake Clifford, who came from the North Queensland Cowboys midway through the season to take over kicking and playmaking duties.

His final six matches to lift Newcastle into a previously-unthought of seventh place finish were solid when the Knights needed their new recruit most.

Tries in wins against the Broncos and the Bulldogs proved critical in close finishes, with Clifford’s ability to link up with experienced attacker Mitchell Pearce suddenly created a daunting one-two prospect for opposition teams.

The addition of Jake Clifford from the Cowboys has been key to the Knights resurgence (Photo – NRL.com)

His kicking also became a reliable factor in the Knights run home, as his consistency between the sticks was a welcome relief to a side playing for their season on the run home.

Three penalty goals at 100% kicking in the tight 16-14 win over the Sharks in Round 22 proved crucial to overcoming an 8-12 half-time deficit, while another flawless night of kicking in regards to both conversions and penalty goals meant everything in a one-point win over the eighth-placed Titans in Round 24.

Without Clifford, it’s hard to know whether the Knights would’ve recovered to post consistent wins and book a finals spot. But his presence was certainly an important factor when it mattered for Newcastle.

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Freeing up attacking play

Following their two big losses to the Storm and Roosters, the Knights had slumped to a scoring low.

For the 2021 season, they averaged only 16 points per game for the season, a low number that had them nowhere near the company of finals-playing sides who could churn out points regularly.

Multiple single-digit scores on the trot highlighted their attacking inadequacies, as their inability to score heavily looked to be pushing them out of finals contention.

But their finish to the season was red-hot on the attacking end. They averaged just under 23 points per game in the final six matches of the season, which included five straight wins and a final-round loss to the Broncos, as they finally made a habit of scoring heavily and consistently when it mattered most.

In regards to their defensive efforts, the Knights also found ways to shore that up over the last six rounds. After previously conceding on average just under 25 points per game throughout the year.

The Knights found a way to decrease that number and leak only 20.5 points per game in the final half-dozen matches of the season, which meant everything when it came down to some tight finishes.

The Tuala factor

22-year-old Enari Tuala was never one of the big names for the Knights with the likes of Ponga and Pearce working their way through the offensive end, but the centre made a name for himself on the run home in 2021.

The former Cowboy came into his own, bagging eight tries in the final six matches to become a crucial factor for the Knights and their sustained success.

His best performance came in Newcastle’s Round 20 win over the Raiders, where the centre snagged a hattrick in the 34-24 win. But in the tight 22-16 win over the Sharks in Round 22 Tuala was also pivotal, snagging the only two tries for his side on a low-scoring day.

Young Enari Tuala has been a revelation for the Knights, scoring eight tries in his last six games (Photo – Knights)

His consistent presence on the run home for the Knights means Tuala was a versatile offensive member, as his ability to score often when Newcastle are on song makes him a crucial cog of the Knights machine that the Eels must stop in their elimination final.

A perfect run home

Finally, the biggest factor helping Newcastle to discover their form and hone their game was a helpful draw in the final six games.

Starting with 34-24 win over the Raiders in Round 20, the Knights were fortunate to only play one top-eight team in their run home, which came in their tight Round 24 clash with the eventual eighth-placed Titans.

A favourable draw home, as well as the experience of Mitchell Pearce, has been crucial to the Knights’ finals run (Photo – NRL.com)

In that match, a critical Pearce one-point field goal in the 79th minute surged the Knights over the line to win 15-14, booking their place in the top eight before they fell into seventh despite resting players in a disappointing 35-22 final round loss to the Broncos.

But matches against Brisbane, Cronulla, the Bulldogs, Raiders and the Broncos again all came when the Knights could play sides who would fail to make the top eight, as they didn’t have to play the league’s power teams in the Storm or Sea Eagles throughout their all-important run home.

Without this soft finish, the Knights may never have recovered their form and posted consistent wins to book seventh place. But now they’re here, they’ll be a tough team to play after building momentum into the finals series.

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