O’Brien owns up to mistakes to restore blue-collar ethic to Newcastle

The long-held theory in the NRL is that a player rarely hits their peak until they’ve had around four seasons getting used to the grind. 

In the case of Adam O’Brien, the same could be true. 

For the first three years of his debut head coaching stint in the NRL at Newcastle, he’s looked frustrated by a team that has not delivered on the field at the rate of improvement he expected.

Last year he copped plenty of ridicule when he pointed to his record of being “involved in four Grand Finals” from his previous stints as assistant coaches at Melbourne and the Roosters. 

“I know how those teams prepared. I know the systems they used defensively,” he claimed after his team lost at home to a rudderless Bulldogs side which had already sacked their coach. “You don’t unlearn that knowledge. Applying it and getting it ingrained is going to take some time clearly.”

He blamed the club’s culture from many years prior, a comment which didn’t sit well with many of Newcastle’s old boys.

This is a blue-collar club which for its first two decades in the big league punched well above its weight due to a combination of investing in local talent and relying on players with a steel city work ethic. 

Andrew Johns for the Knights

Knights Immortal Andrew Johns. (Getty Images)

“Be the player everyone wants to play with” was a phrase coined by foundation coach Allan McMahon which had been passed down through the generations from the 1997 side which shocked Manly to win the ARL premiership to their counterparts four years later who pulled off one of the great Grand Final heists to embarrass red-hot favourites Parramatta. 

The spirit of the Knights did get lost somewhere along the way when Nathan Tinkler assumed ownership of the club by making plenty of promises from his mining empire that quickly went six feet under. 

Up until their 30-28 extra-time triumph over Canberra on Sunday afternoon, the Knights had not won a finals match in the aftermath of the Tinkler fiasco. 

It was their first playoff victory since Wayne Bennett coached them to the preliminary final from seventh a decade ago with upsets over Canterbury and Melbourne before they were eliminated by the eventual premiers, the Roosters. 

Rick Stone was the sacrificial lamb in the season following Bennett’s return to Brisbane and Nathan Brown oversaw the pain of two more wooden spoon seasons but was punted in 2019 when he still couldn’t get success even when a decent roster was installed in Newcastle.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 06: Adam O'Brien coach of the Newcastle Knights during a Newcastle Knights NRL training session at Newcastle on February 06, 2020 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

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

Ever since, O’Brien has done well but never appeared happy nor assured of his long-term future. 

After surviving the axe last year following a regression from two straight seasons of back to back low-end finals appearances, it looked like 2023 would be his last in charge when the Knights were paddling in 14th spot in Round 9 with a 3-1-5 record.

The likes of Des Hasler, John Morris, Paul McGregor and Justin Holbrook were tossed around as potential replacements as coach.

When they travelled to Penrith in Round 17, the premiers didn’t bother playing their State of Origin contingent even though they’d lost their previous match to North Queensland with their stars unavailable.

The Panthers still managed to beat the Knights 20-12 and the drums were beating about O’Brien being on the way out. 

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 15: Tyson Gamble of the Knights celebrates after kicking a field goalduring the round seven NRL match between Newcastle Knights and Penrith Panthers at McDonald Jones Stadium on April 15, 2023 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Tyson Gamble with Bradman Best. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

They responded with a 66-0 hiding of Canterbury and a win over the Tigers which proved little apart from the mediocrity of their opponents but when they beat the Storm at McDonald Jones Stadium in Round 21, the sniff of momentum grew into a pattern of confidence and now they have 10 wins on the trot for only the second time in club history. 

The Knights can equal their record by downing the Warriors in Auckland on Saturday to earn a trip to Brisbane for a preliminary final showdown with the Broncos. 

O’Brien last off-season admitted he had been soft on his players at times after a long hard look in the proverbial mirror.

Young coaches who don’t adjust on the run rarely see out their first contract or earn another one elsewhere. 

Reports are now emerging that O’Brien will be offered another contract to take him until the end of 2026 and although the Knights are unlikely to be in a bidding war for his services anytime soon, he has earned a new deal.

Eyebrows were raised when they let their player of the year winner David Klemmer walk to join the Wests Tigers and they stumbled upon their first-choice playmaker almost by accident.

They had been agitating for Wests to release Luke Brooks but when the NRL’s most short-sighted club opted to show Jackson Hastings the door instead, the Knights signed the on-field organiser they’d lacked since Mitchell Pearce said au revoir for France at the end of 2021.

Although journeyman Adam Clune has done a serviceable job filling in for Hastings in recent weeks, his absence this weekend is substantial. 

Like his coach, Hastings has taken a while to find his niche by playing to his strengths rather than trying to be a superstar. 

The Knights already have one of those in Kalyn Ponga and since the skipper has returned from five-eighth to fullback, he’s given them the touch of class in attack that they needed. 

If he was wearing a green jersey last Sunday, the Raiders would have won. 

Ponga has been the difference between a solid Knights side and one capable of knocking off not only the Storm but the Sharks and Rabbitohs during their late-season surge.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 27: Knights celebrate the try of Kalyn Ponga during the round 26 NRL match. between Newcastle Knights and Cronulla Sharks at McDonald Jones Stadium on August 27, 2023 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Kalyn Ponga celebrates a try. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

If you disregard the nine matches he played as a Cowboy over two seasons, Ponga is in his sixth season as a fully-fledged first-grader at Newcastle and you can tell he is now finally in full command on the field.

He’s always been talented, never short of brilliance but up until this year, consistency has not been a friend of his. 

Saturday’s match represents just the third time in his career since his debut in 2016 that he’s played 20 matches and his 21 try assists and 19 line breaks are both high watermarks for the 25-year-old marquee fullback.

O’Brien has got the best out of not only Hastings and Ponga but from the Knights players who have been around for at least three seasons, there are 10 all up who have never played better.

They’re all either in that sweet spot of having enough experience to be in tune with their game but not in the veteran class when injuries can reduce a player’s physical peak.

Bradman Best Fifth season 69 matches
Dominic Young Third season 50 matches
Kalyn Ponga Eighth season 116 matches
Greg Marzhew Third season 46 matches
Jackson Hastings Seventh (NRL) season 85 matches
Tyson Gamble Fifth season 48 matches
Phoenix Crossland Fifth season 59 matches
Jacob Saifiti Eighth season 141 matches
Daniel Saifiti Eighth season 160 matches
Jack Hetherington Seventh season 69 matches

And yes that last line of the table is correct – Jack Hetherington has played all 25 matches for Newcastle. 

Apart from a couple of dopey sin-binnings for slapping opponents when provoked, he has not only not been suspended but been a valuable contributor to their pack. 

For someone who had amassed only 43 appearances at three previous clubs across six seasons, that’s quite the turnaround.

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