29/05/2024

It was the mother of all turnarounds for Newcastle this season, from winless to Premiers. (Image: Newcastle Knights: Design: Will Cuckson)

Newcastle couldn’t have foreseen a better turnaround the second time around in the NRLW. On the back of a winless inaugural season and brilliant recruiting, the Knights found themselves comfortable at the level and capped it off with a Premiership.

A stark contrast to the Men’s team that finished third last, the women built an atmosphere around Newcastle that has lacked for years treating the town to its third Premiership and first since 2001.

Finishing Position: Premiers (four wins, one loss)

What Worked?

The recruitment department nailed their scouting ahead of this season, prioritizing bringing in players that grew up in the area. Hannah Southwell, Millie Boyle and Caitlin Moran all proved to be important signings for on-field production as well as building culture amongst the group.

The Knights brought in 16 new players ahead of the season, only two of those didn’t play a game. The new inclusions of Millie Boyle, Tamika Upton and Yasmin Clydsdale all made the NRLW Team of the Year.

Coach Ron Griffiths made a point that the key to any build up the ladder is a strong defence. He brought the group together during pre-season and in his own words he ‘built the team around the toughness and resilience of the Knights team of the late ’90s’.

After conceding 123 points over five games last season, ‘scramble defence’ became their identity. It was constantly referenced in interviews and press conferences by players and Griffiths.

Their game was based around lasting the full 70 minutes and it showed, in the last 15 minutes of games they outscored their opposition nine tries to two over the seven-game season. Post Grand Final, Captain Millie Boyle explained their defensive ideals.

“One thing we’ve always prided ourselves on is our defence and scramble D (defence), especially in the closing stages of games,” she said.

“You don’t get the trophy for scoring the first try, it’s about sticking it out through the middle of the game. We worked hard throughout the middle of the game and that’s what allowed us to open it up and get those tries at the end.”

What didn’t?

The Knights were confronted when they came up against the reigning premiers in the Roosters, some may say complacency crept in after three rounds on top as for most of the game it seemed they had no answer for the clinical Roosters.

They were blown off the park early, the Roosters scoring two tries in the first 10 minutes and took a 12-0 lead into the main break but then the Knights capitalised on a 15-minute wave of momentum, scoring three tries to put them in front with nine minutes left to play.

It was the final nine minutes that didn’t work with the team looking to defend the lead rather than continue attacking. They looked shaky in offence, looking like a shadow of what they displayed for the rest of the season.

Eventually the dam wall broke and with four minutes to go, a timid pass found the floor with the experienced Isabelle Kelly taking the moment. The Roosters centre ran the best part of 80 metres to score under the posts. A simple conversion put gave the Sydney side the lead and dealt Newcastle their only loss of the campaign.

Who impressed?

It would be hard who impressed more than 17-year-old Jesse Southwell. The Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist required an exemption to make her NRLW debut as an underage player, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching her.

Southwell looked in control of the game the second she stepped onto the field in round one, fresh from her rugby sevens campaign she sat in the thick of the action, having a season-high 16 tackles at 100 per cent efficiency and 148 running metres playing as a halfback.

Southwell came into her own as a halfback through the back half of the season, providing seven try assists and averaging 252 kicking metres over the last four games as well as scoring a try of her own in the Grand Final.

She capped off a stellar 2022 by taking out the Knights’ Player of the Year award in a tie alongside centre Shanice Parker as well as both the Knights’ and league-wide Rookie of the Year awards. However, there wasn’t a spot for her in the Jillaroos squad for the upcoming World Cup which left fans shocked.

Tamika Upton starred for the Knights at fullback, averaging one try in each of her five games this season. Her speed with the ball gravitated defenders towards her without fail as she spread the ball to the outside, which was highlighted in her Grand Final offload which created the overlap that kickstarted the Knights’ scoring.

The NRLW Team of the Year prop pairing shouldered the hard running for the Newcastle side with Caitlan Johnston and Millie Boyle dominating the centre of the ground with their physical presence. Boyle sat 150 metres clear of the second-ranked player in post-contact metres while Johnston ranked fourth, the pair also earned call-ups to represent Australia at the World Cup.

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Season Highlight

Any team’s inaugural premiership is special, but to win one after being winless the season prior gives it a lot more meaning. To the city that lives and breathes rugby league, bringing home the first premiership since the men’s 2001 triumph will never be forgotten.

A dominant and clinical performance in front of 42,000 fans at Accor Stadium encapsulates how Newcastle went about their second season, rarely looking out of control of a game.

The Knights gave fans plenty to cheer about throughout the season, whether it was Emmanita Paki’s try to put the team in front or Tamika Upton’s try in the early stages of the second half that felt like the early sealer. The city of Newcastle was celebrating from early on in the game, three tries in the final six minutes was just icing on the cake.

Season lowlight

Marquee signing Hannah Southwell was primed for a standout homecoming season, after being recruited to captain her homecoming club and play alongside younger sister Jesse. Hannah wasn’t able to finish the first half of the opening game before tearing her ACL.

It was a heart-breaking injury for the club and one of the most worrying non-contact ACL injuries. However, Coach Ron Griffiths was insistent on keeping her around the group and involved with the club this season.

Where to next?

The NRLW’s 12-month cap on contracts means the Knights will be on a mission to re-sign their stars. At the top of their list should be Griffiths with his work and dedication to the group a key factor in their results this season.

His impact is reflected in the attitude of his players, who are always quick to credit Griffiths when asked about the squad in interviews or conferences.

Knights CEO Phil Gardner is confident he will continue next season as coach as the club has shown long-term interest. He’s also hoping their Newcastle-grown talent will stay at the club and build sustained success.

The 2023 NRLW season is set to expand to 10 teams, with the salary cap reportedly doubling as well. At the closing of the current collective bargaining agreements clubs will surely ask for an extension of the contract cap, putting an end to the yearly scramble of retention.

With the size of their Novocastrian contingent, another year of development into Jesse Southwell and a full season from older sister Hannah, there seems to be no reason why the Knights won’t challenge again in 2023.

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