A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Newcastle Knights

The seventh placed Knights had a respectable 11-8-1 record but were unable to capitalise, exiting week one of the finals. From pre-season:

…The good news is that the Knights might legitimately make the finals this year.

The Knights massively outperformed in 2018, which then led to many talking heads predicting serious success in 2019. Success wasn’t forthcoming because the fundamentals weren’t there. …

Mitchell Pearce had a career season in 2019, at least until I wrote about it, but otherwise the team struggled to meet expectations. I’m more of a numbers guy than a culture guy, but even I could see that the team was often not trying. Results from round 16 through 21 last year bear that out. …

The finishing touches to the “rebuild” have now been applied, not least Adam O’Brien replacing Nathan Brown as head coach, to bring the Knights back in contention for finals places. Newcastle are still a way off challenging for the premiership.

For the first two months of the season, it looked like I had completely undercooked my expectations for the Knights in 2020. In May, I would not have been surprised for them to have finished in the top four and challenged for the premiership. Then the wheels came off and I’d look like a psychic if it wasn’t for how the wheels fell off.


What happened

As a whole, the team exceeded the league average production (see: How It All Works). The Knights averaged 430 Taylors per game while the rest of the league managed 412. Most of this production came from the back five, which outproduced the league average by 12%. If we put aside his defensive positioning, Ponga was relatively productive with the ball in hand – third best fullback this year by WARG – and maybe it will surprise that the Knights went off their first cliff around the same time Edrick Lee was injured.

While the pack and interchange managed to mildly exceed the league average (3% over in both cases), the halfback, five-eighth and hooker combined to underperform by 7%.

Mitchell Pearce plays a style of dominating style of football.

In fact, he was increasingly dominant until this year. While you might assume that Pearce had a down year, he finished with 1.1 WARG, eighth of all halfbacks and five-eighths in the league. While this is not bad, this is far from the elite cadre with which he is normally associated.

Against a background of inflated production – the long run average TPR is .096 and which blew out to .110 in 2020, thanks predominantly to the rule changes – Pearce was as consistent as ever but he lacked the dizzying highs that we saw last year and returned to career form.

It seems, to be effective, he needs a foil. Nathan Brown briefly toyed with making Kalyn Ponga fit that role at the start of 2019 and it didn’t work. For the first two months of 2020 (5-2-1, including a draw with the eventual minor premiers), Pearce had Kurt Mann to work with. During their brief renaissance from round 13 to 15 (3-0), the Knights had Blake Green.

Mann was moved to hooker for the remainder of the season after the on-loan Andrew McCullough tore his hamstring off the bone. Green later tore his ACL and then signed for Canterbury. Mason Lino unproductively filled in, Pearce stopped caring and the team’s performance deteriorated to the point that they were beaten 36-6 by the Titans in the penultimate week of the regular season. The finals result two weeks later was no surprise.

What’s next

I’m not as enthusiastic as many were or are on Adam O’Brien but the benefit of conducting this exercise has shown he at least has demonstrated a degree of flexibility. The team looked great at full strength through the first eight rounds. As injuries mounted, results suffered but O’Brien was able to find spare parts to get the machine moving in the right direction again. When those parts failed, the Knights had already secured their first finals appearance since 2013 and I think that was probably enough for O’Brien’s first year so a degree of coasting/helplessness can be excused. In 2021, he will not be afforded that luxury but I suspect he will be fine.

We haven’t spent much time considering the Knights’ defensive attitude. While the Knights’ defence has improved this season, starting the year with a -11 defensive Poseidon rating and finishing with a +11, there is still a lot of work to be done to get that number into premiership contention (around +25). The post-16 Roosters and post-18 Raiders have shown that most of that work can be done in one season, with some polish in a second, but it will require continuous and positive improvement in 2021.

Above everything else right now, the Knights need a hooker. If Andrew McCullough is the answer, then the question cannot be “are we definitely winning the premiership in this, the year Two Thousand and Twenty-something Anno Domini?” It is the most obvious missing piece to the Knights’ premiership aspirations.

So who could it be?

In 2019, the Knights reserve grade team split the hooking role between Chris Randall (average TPR at hooker in 2019 of .112 over eight games) and Zac Woolford (.036 over twelve games). In Queensland, the Knights’ not-a-feeder-but-pathway-partner Ipswich had Kierran Moseley play twenty games for .141 in 2019.

TPR typically does a middling-to-bad job of assessing hookers’ contributions to the game, so I’m loathe to write anyone off based on it but these are not exceptional numbers. By contrast, Harry Grant played 19 games for an average TPR of .266. But if the Knights can’t sign anyone then they will need to dig into their talent pipeline. Is now a good time to point out that Tom Starling played NSW Cup for Newcastle in 2018? Having said that, Starling’s emergence likely frees up one of Josh Hodgson, Tom Starling or Sivila Havili. The latter might not be it but between the merry-go-rounds at Canberra and Melbourne, there is likely to be an opportunity to snap up a good number 9 for a canny recruiter.

[EDIT: As some have pointed out, Jayden Brailey is the incumbent hooker, after spending almost all of 2020 injured. His numbers aren’t spectacular but if you like Brailey and don’t care about TPR – which is a perfectly valid view – then the focus shifts back to whether you can find a better 6 than Kurt Mann with whatever cap space the Knights have left available. The same questions arise, with the answer that your club is better off manufacturing a player than buying one but the Cowboys have a surplus of playmakers at the moment.]

The clock ticks on Mitchell Pearce and I think this year shows we are past his peak. His next contract may well be in England. However, with Kurt Mann back at five-eighth, a good-to-great hooker, a bit more belief in the pack and some luck with injuries in the backs, then the Knights might well be able to put it together next year or the year after.