A Shallow Dive into the 2022 Newcastle Knights

Your women’s Newcastle Knights finished the NRLW season in second place with a 4-1 record and +44 points difference. That brings the women’s Knights total number of wins to four, in their best season yet. Newcastle crushed the Dragons, 30-6, in the semis, followed by a comprehensive 32-12 victory over the Eels in the grand final in front of nearly 43,000 people. This is the Knights’ first premiership win since 2001.

Your men’s Newcastle Knights finished the NRLM season in fourteenth place with a 6-18 record and -290 points difference. Scoring just 15.5 points per game, the 2022 Knights were the second least effective in attack of any Knights team in the NRL era (only 2016 was worse). For comparison, the 1908 Newcastle Rebels scored 16.8 points per game. Defensively, conceding 27.6 points per game was the fourth worst of any Newcastle team (behind 2016, 2005 and 2007) and, miraculously, only third worst in the NRL this year. Their Pythagorean expectation was for 6.0 wins, so the Knights were as statistically bad as they looked.

The Victory Lap

From the men’s pre-season deep dive:

Newcastle had an odd 2021. Their 12 wins belied a points difference that suggested they were more like a 9 win team. Even the more forgiving SWCP had them pegged at 10.5 wins. In a normal year, they would’ve been clear cut candidates to miss the finals. This is doubly baffling as only the Bulldogs scored fewer points… That is an unforgivably poor offence and still, in 2021, they finished seventh and nearly made it to week 2 of the finals. The heavy dose of mean regression, as they surely cannot rely on fluking wins while being that poor with ball in hand with a league average defence, that the Knights should experience will be a handbrake on any upward momentum the club has going into 2022…

What’s missing is a sense of cohesion and it’s going to be a defining year for Adam O’Brien’s credentials as coach if he can deal with this kind of churn (partly arising from player movements and partly arising from injuries) to not only maintain a soft top eight finish but make an actual push up the ladder. His coach factor of +5 in 2020 is offset by a mean regressing -2 in 2021, so he needs a big positive number to beat the mediocre projections and just to maintain the Knights’ standing. He’s going to have find something special to go further. I’ve had my doubts about O’Brien for a while – he’s an upgrade on Brown but who isn’t? – and its time for rubber to hit road.

I genuinely thought they’d just miss the finals at worst and that would be considered a “failure” for O’Brien. He and his team did so much worse.

Then from the second women’s pre-season deep dive:

So the incredibly low bar the Knights have to clear is simply to win their first NRLW game. That should not be a problem. The introduction of a salary cap with two marquee slots has meant that the club can spend enough money to secure Millie Boyle and Tamika Upton from the Broncos, two of the best in the game, to join Hannah Southwell incoming from the Roosters and re-signees Caitlan Johnston, Romy Teitzel and Kirra Dibb. That’s the core of a pretty handy side, one that won’t get blown off the park so easily…

There’s two ways the Knights’ season narrative could pan out, and I can’t decide which is more likely. The first is that the new recruits help bridge the gap to the rest of the league but there’s still work to do and the team ends up fifth or sixth again (again, I doubt they go winless)…

The second narrative is that the new talent is more than enough to turn the ship around and the Knights are competitive with the Dragons and Roosters and fighting for the premiership. On paper, it seems the numbers are not there, especially with the departure of the New Zealanders and turnover of all the Gold Stars bar Teitzel and Manzelmann, however, it’s also exactly the kind of thing that stats miss until it’s happened, so this outcome would also not surprise me. Newcastle might not be the best team, but they are certainly the most interesting to watch this season.

Turns out not only did the ship turn around and the Knights became competitive, they won the whole bloody thing. Stats be damned.

What happened

Adam O’Brien can’t coach.

There he is, down there between Nathan Brown and Michael Maguire, the latter copping some blowback for the team getting worse after his sacking. It’s clear that the two seasons his team made the finals was a post-Brown bounceback as much as anything. What we’re seeing this year is as good a reflection of O’Brien’s capability as those two seasons. He’s now 29-38-1. It doesn’t help that the Knights seem intent on smashing their recruitment strategy onto the rocks of Isaac Moses FC, a la the 2020 Brisbane Broncos, but that’s not an excuse to be this poor with an Origin calibre pack. If your benchmark is Anthony Seibold, I’ve got bad news for you as to the general expectations of the NRL community.

He didn’t help himself with what was probably the funniest headline of the season:


Fortunately, the Knights faithful can do what the 2020 Broncos fans did and completely ignore the pathetic performance of their men’s team and instead focus on their newly minted NRLW premiers. It’s not difficult to explain what happened to the women’s Knights this season: they bought the best talent, the signed some more that everyone else missed and put together one of the two best teams in the competition. When the Eels did them a favour by knocking out the Roosters, it was Newcastle’s to lose. While an early try to the Eels gave them the sniff of an upset, the class of Upton, Dibb, Teitzel and Southwell and the leadership of Boyle overwhelmed the Eels (albeit that the final score was a little more lopsided thanks to garbage time tries to really rub it in).

There’s always next year

The salary cap restrictions being what they are in the NRLW, there’s a lot that culture and winning can do to bind a team together that would normally be dissociated by market forces. Nonetheless, there are going to be a lot more dollars chasing the same talent. Jesse Southwell might now be one of the most valuable commodities in the women’s game, she’s that good. Millie Boyle’s value hasn’t exactly gone down, Tamika Upton played one of her better seasons and Romy Teitzel and Emma Manzelmann are surely heading north to headline the new North Queensland team in 2023. The Knights will have to be careful they aren’t picked cleaned (again, like the Broncos) before the 2023 season if they want a crack at back-to-back. If they can somehow hold this roster together, then they will be in contention again.

The men’s Knights are sticking with O’Brien for the time being. It’s probably a mistake but WhO eLsE iS oUt ThErE ??? David Klemmer is apparently on the outer. Tyson Gamble is coming in to play in the halves which, given his current knee injury and inability to pass or kick, is not great. It’s not clear who his partner will be after the Knights missed on Milford, Clifford wants to go and the Tigers seem bafflingly reluctant to let Brooks go. Adam Clune? Phoenix Crossland? Is Super League’s Man of Steel, Brodie Croft, ready for his NRL redemption arc? If there’s one club who can do what the Storm failed to do, it’s definitely the Knights.

In summary, it’s a pretty bleak outlook for the men but at least the women’s team is good. Enjoy it while it lasts.