Knight and day: Newcastle were one of the best sides to watch in 2023, but their attack has disappeared in 2024


If you’re Adam O’Brien, you’re probably not used to being spoiled for choice.

The Knights coach has often had a pretty obvious first choice line-up to pick from, and until this year, it was a case of getting the guys you had to perform above themselves rather than working out who to pick.

This year, however, he’s been blessed with depth. If anything, there’s too much of it.

He has four viable options in the halves and two hookers, leaving the coach with tough decisions to make each week on team selection.

Moreover, he has them as a result of good performances last year, in the case of Tyson Gamble, who might otherwise have been expected to leave, and the flow on from those good performances, which made recruitment look muddled.

Before the Knights were good at the back end of 2023, they had signed Jack Cogger as a Gamble replacement. Before Kalyn Ponga was a fullback again, they had signed Will Pryce to play fullback.

Then Ponga won a Dally M in the 1 jumper – and categorically proved he can’t defend in the front line – and Gamble played his best ever footy in the 6. Cogger ended up playing the Grand Final, too.

Now O’Brien has cycled through all of his options except Will Pryce, who might consider himself unlucky in that David Armstrong was preferred at 1 when Ponga went down, at least in part because the English fullback had gone off injured in NSW Cup the weekend before.

Armstrong was on the brink of signing for Leigh in the Super League but is now an automatic pick having impressed as a deputy.

Cogger was pulled late from NSW Cup this weekend with Gamble injured and Pryce, who is back and firing in reggies, remains the only one not to get a game.

In chopping and changing, it has left the Knight without a tactical identity. They complete high, throw up aimless midfield bombs and then hope that someone does something.

Compare and contrast to last year, where they had killer moves on both edges and a real willingness to play expansive footy. In a year when everyone is leaning into that, somehow Newcastle have gone the other way.

They’ve been assisted in recent weeks by poor weather that has brought the game closer to what they are playing anyway, but you’d have to think that, if the Knights are to challenge towards the top later, they’re going to have to start playing a bit of footy.

The numbers more than back this up. In all the most meaningful stats – points scored, metres made, line breaks – they’re way down.

David Armstrong scores. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

It’s two tries, one and a half line breaks and around 40 metres per game, the equivalent of one average set.

That last number matters, too, because this is coming from more possession: total sets are up, total runs are up and so is the completion rate, by a massive 5% year on year.

One doesn’t have to be an analyst to see that, if you’re completing higher, getting more ball and being less effective, it’s probably because the play is too conservative.

That’s backed up in the data, too. The hit up percentage is also up and the pass per run ratio is down, as are the line engagements.

This is side that is playing much more one-out, much further from the line and not chancing their arm enough.

The kicking, which was a major issue around this time last year, has also fallen away.

Hastings is usually decent enough with the boot, but the Knights have fallen into the midfield trap of hoisting bombs that try to cage the back three in, but neither turn the defence around nor present an opportunity to challenge for the footy.

One has to guess that this version of the Knights exists because O’Brien wants it to be that way.

Though he’s lost Dom Young from one wing, it’s possible to argue that he has improved in almost every other area.

Cogger is an upgrade as a back-up on Adam Clune, Jayden Brailey is now fit at 9, Kai Pearce-Paul and Dylan Lucas has been among their as edge forwards and the likes of Leo Thompson and Bradman Best only get better.

What has changed is the intent. This is a side playing inside itself, without the flair of before and though Ponga is now injured, this was a problem in 2024 when he was still in the team.

Prior to their huge win against the Dogs that kicked off the ten game winning run, they averaged 4.1 line breaks per game. In 2024, they’re on 4.2.

The difference then was that they were completing much lower, the sign that they were trying things but they weren’t coming off. Now, they’re not trying as much.

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

Luckily for O’Brien, he should be able to move the dial a little back the other way. He’ll need to sooner rather than later.

Newcastle are a flat 5-5 through ten rounds, and are 2-2 against sides currently in the top eight thanks to a win at home to Melbourne and on the road against the Dolphins.

That might be caveated, however, with the fact that they got the Storm without either Cameron Munster or Jahrome Hughes and that they defeated Redcliffe on goalkicking, having split the difference in tries.

Wins are wins, but the manner of them does factor in at this time of the year. The Knights are the second worst in the comp for tries scored and defensively they’re middling: good in terms of tries conceded, bad in terms of line breaks conceded and right down the centre for metres.

That would suggest that the underlying aspects might not be expected to hold for much longer given variance and draw.

O’Brien might get away with it for a while yet: his side have the Titans at Magic and the Dogs at home, then a bye and their only truly tough game in Origin is a visit from the Panthers in a week they should be full strength.

Thereafter, however, it gets hard, fast. They go to Canberra and Manly in consecutive weeks, then the Broncos and Panthers back to back.

This is a side that needs to beat the bad teams to have a chance against the best. If they unleash their attack, that might well be a chance of happening.

If they don’t, it’s hard to see anything like the form that saw Newcastle host a home final last year on a wave of positivity.

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