Knights already at sixes and sevens again: What exactly was the rush to re-sign O’Brien long term?


The life of an NRL coach is portrayed as a cut-throat occupation where they could get the punt at any given moment. 

In reality, many of them are given too long to bring success to a club. 

Knights coach Adam O’Brien is in the early stages of his fifth season at the helm. 

They have a grand total of one playoff win in that time. And they were lucky to scrape by in that one on home soil against the eighth-placed Raiders last year. 

The pain of three straight wooden spoons had been absorbed by the time he arrived at the club. 

Newcastle’s lopsided roster had been rebuilt and reloaded during Nathan Brown’s tenure after the smash and grab stints of Wayne Bennett and their brief (but not brief enough) owner Nathan Tinkler. 

Glass half full, you could say O’Brien has taken the Knights to the finals three of his four years and an overall success rate of 45% is not terrible. 

But apart from the second half of last season when they surged from 14th to fifth in the closing eight rounds, the Knights have lacked identity. 

They haven’t been tough like the famous Newcastle sides of the past or shown any flamboyance in attack.

Unfortunately for the NRL’s most devoted supporters who make up the one fan base who turns up in large numbers through thick and thin, they are perhaps only slightly closer to breaking their 23-year premiership drought than when O’Brien took over. And they’re still a long way away from being genuine title threats.

The Knights. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Apart from the Gold Coast des-aster, the Knights are rivalling South Sydney for being the NRL’s biggest disappointments from the first month of the season. 

They were woeful on home turf to lose 28-12 to Canberra to kick off the season, they threw away victory over the Cowboys up north the following week with a comedy of handling errors down the stretch and then eked out an unconvincing two-point triumph over a severely weakened Storm side at McDonald Jones Stadium.

There was greater commitment last week in their 20-12 loss to the Warriors in Auckland but after talking up his team’s effort, O’Brien has again chopped and changed his halves.

Jackson Hastings, who was controversially punted after Round 2, is back at halfback with his replacement, Jack Cogger, transferred to five-eighth and Tyson Gamble paying the price for the Knights’ 1-3 record. 

They also have English recruit Will Pryce finding his feet in the NSW Cup as a five-eighth option and the 21-year-old could be thrown into the NRL fray sooner rather than later if the Hastings-Cogger combination does not get the Knights firing.

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Phoenix Crossland, who has made every post a winner at hooker during Jayden Brailey’s extended injury absences over the past couple of years, is another Knight who could be a playmaking option although he has seemed to lack the organising skills as a first receiver whenever he’s been slotted into the halves.

The old “competition for spots” theory is one of the most over-rated cliches in the NRL. It’s talked up every off-season by players and coaches alike as being good to have. 

What the Knights would much prefer is a situation like Penrith where there is no competition for the spots in the halves but a clear hierarchy where there are two certain selections who hold themselves to a high account and set a standard that never puts their position in jeopardy.

Heading into Friday night’s clash with a St George Illawarra side which is Dr Jekyll one week and Mr Hyde the next, the Knights should be raging hot favourites but it would surprise very few NRL observers if the Dragons get up. 

O’Brien was under the pump last season when his side was in wooden spoon range, just three points off the bottom, with a 5-1-9 record before Ponga’s purple patch propelled him to his first Dally M Medal and the Knights into fifth spot. 

After just getting by the Raiders in their opening playoff, they went no further and unless the constant spinal adjustments give their team a backbone, you wouldn’t be putting money on them to be returning to the finals this season. 

Which begs the question – why were Newcastle’s bigwigs in such a rush to re-sign O’Brien in the off-season?  

Adam O’Brien. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

He was off contract at the end of 2024 but they gave him a three-year extension in the off-season as a show of faith following the run to the finals.

Was any other club trying to poach him? Clearly not. 

He didn’t deserve to get the punt after turning the team’s fortunes around and probably earned a one-year extension but a three-season deal was excessive based on an objective assessment of the situation.

As has been the case throughout O’Brien’s tenure, their chances rest on Ponga’s shoulders. 

The star fullback has been ultra impressive again this season with four line breaks and a couple of try assists in the opening four rounds but opposition defensive lines know that they can target him without having to worry too much about any of their other main playmakers.

Dominic Young’s defection to the Roosters has hit the Knights hard in that he had the class, and blistering pace, to make the most of Ponga’s half-chances or any of the offerings that came from the halves. 

Now they look like being stuck in the middle of the road yet again, possibly being in the finals, probably not, with a coach under contract for three more years after this one who has not yet been able to consistently prove that he can get this club heading in an upward trajectory.

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