Scene: C-Bus Stadium, Gold Coast. It’s the twenty-first of April and we’re in round 6 of the 2019 National Rugby League season. At around a quarter to three in the afternoon, the referee blows the whistle for half time.
The Newcastle Knights are down 22 to nil after the worst forty minutes of football in recent memory. The Knights conceded three long range tries to the Titans off the back of errors, compounded with extremely lazy defence.
The Knights fervently loyal fanbase has endured years of failure since the financial demise of Nathan Tinkler in 2014. The club’s ownership was turned over to the NRL and a horror run followed, including three straight wooden spoons and fielding an historically bad 1-22-1 side in 2016.
The club, under the new ownership of the Wests Group, signed Kangaroos prop, David Klemmer, in the 2018-19 off-season. His acquisition was seen to be the last piece of the puzzle to bring the Novocastrians back into contention, joining young superstar Kalyn Ponga and premiership winning halfback Mitchell Pearce.
After losing the previous four games, coach Nathan Brown is now under extreme pressure. The final score to the Titans is 38-14. Brown reportedly has two games to turn around the Knights’ fortunes or his head will be on the chopping block.
Since that day in April, the Knights have not lost. Newcastle are now on a six game winning streak. The turnaround is remarkable.
The Knights’ form rating bottomed out at 1416 after the loss to the Titans, leaving Newcastle last in the league. After beating South Sydney last Friday, it now sits on 1581.
In six games, the Knights have gone from spoon contenders with a Pythagorean expectation of .334, looking at a 8-16 season, to challenging for a top four spot with a Pythag of .649 and a potential 16-8 record.
There is no more talk about Nathan Brown’s future. He appears to be safe for now. And it’s thanks to Mitchell Pearce.
On the Knights roster, only the performances of the below average Connor Watson and winger Edrick Lee correlate more tightly to the club’s turnaround in form than Pearce’s uptick in production. I’ve plotted the team’s form Elo rating (Archimedes) against each player’s game-by-game PPG so you can see for yourself.
These facts become more interesting in the context of State of Origin. After 265 first grade games for the Roosters and the Knights, Pearce has a winning record (just), the 2013 premiership and three minor premierships. He has never represented Australia but for New South Wales, Pearce has played eighteen games, winning just five. In the absence of the maroon future Immortals that plagued his career, could Mitchell Pearce redeem his reputation at rep level?
In a typical season, Pearce strings together five or six games for peak around .150 and finish the season in the range of .115 to .130. So far in 2019 he’s averaging .160 with a peak of .221 over the last six games, an unprecedented purple patch for the halfback. While some of that will be down to taking on more workload in the absence of a reliable five-eighth, there is a case that this time it is different for Pearce.
As a Queenslander, I don’t really have an opinion on whether Mitchell Pearce should make an appearance for game 2 of State of Origin. That’s for the NSWRL selectors to decide. To me, it seems obvious that the Blues need someone with a kicking game and their game plan implicitly recognises Nathan Cleary is not the man to provide it. If not the halfback, then who?
Rugby league loves a redemption story.