This article was first written for and published by The Roar.
Is the Newcastle Knights’ season over?
With a 20-14 loss against the Parramatta Eels on Saturday night, the Knights now find themselves in twelfth spot on the ladder, three points out of the top eight and struggling to find form after six straight losses.
Their season is on the ropes and while the Knights’ run home is not too bad – including several teams below them on the ladder like the Gold Coast Titans and the North Queensland Cowboys – the reality is it doesn’t matter how favourable a draw might be, the team involved still has to win games, and to make the finals, the Knights almost have to win all their remaining fixtures.
Many predicted that this team would make the top eight at the start of the year and for Knights fans this was music to their ears.
It’s been a long time between drinks when it comes to finals appearances for this team and with a squad boasting the likes of Mitchell Pearce, David Klemmer and Kalyn Ponga there was cause for optimism.
So what’s gone wrong? Many have their theories.
There have been questions around Nathan Brown’s ability as a coach. For several years he has been preaching the ‘rebuild’ message to supporters; a narrative which fans have lapped up.
But the reality is, Brown has no more excuses. The players on the field are ‘his’ team and there is no hangover from a previous coach.
He keeps making changes to his squad which suggests to me that he has no idea who his best thirteen are and in my view, no matter the story behind it, the Jesse Ramien situation was handled poorly.
After the loss on Saturday night, I saw some Knights fans start to panic and perhaps justifiably so.
But one of the most bizarre narratives to come out of the game on Saturday night were around some of Newcastle’s players with fans accusing them of not caring.
This is a narrative I find tough to swallow sometimes. I find it hard to believe that players would put their bodies on the line for eighty minutes a week and not care about their performance or the team that they were playing for. It doesn’t make any sense.
But these accusations came at the end of the game, with some fans taking photographs of Kalyn Ponga after the game laughing and joking with his opposition? These fans then shared the photos and questioned his integrity.
Seeing opposition players laughing and joking with each other after a game is not something that has ever bothered me, especially since noticing that I am generally less cranky when watching a game with friends of mine that support the opposition. Having them with me seems to take the edge off and makes a loss much easier to swallow.
I think there’s something quite lovely about players being able to put the loss behind them and then take some time to get along with their opposition (especially when you consider how many of the players know each other and have played together at different points in their career).
This embrace after a game is something I often see in women’s sport and I certainly think it adds to the spectacle.
Just because a player smiles after a loss, doesn’t mean that they don’t care.
I wonder if a player that didn’t care about his team would have put his body on the line like Ponga did to push Clint Gutherson into touch in what was most certainly a try-saving tackle.
Additionally, the ‘he doesn’t care about the club’ narrative fits nicely with the idea that Ponga is greedy because of the $6 million contract upgrade he has requested for the next four seasons. Such an upgrade would make him one of the highest players in the game.
But who can blame Ponga for trying to get an upgrade when his form is being hyped up by the media and commentators? Players have short-lived careers and I do not begrudge them for striking while the iron is hot.
A player is worth the amount that a club is willing to pay them and if the Knights are willing to make Ponga their six-million-dollar man, then that’s the amount he’s worth.
On the other hand of the spectrum, fans were equally critical of David Klemmer. In the final few moments of the game, Klemmer was penalised for a cheap forearm on Manu Ma’u.
With that penalty the game was out of reach for the Knights with Parramatta electing to take the two points and Mitchell Moses watching the time on the clock tick away.
After the game, Klemmer was visibly cranky and he left the field immediately without shaking hands with any of the opposition players (or perhaps he was just trying to avoid Ma’u who is, without a doubt, the scariest man in footy).
Klemmer was criticised for poor sportsmanship despite it being later revealed that after the game, Klemmer made his way to the Eels dressing sheds and shook the hands of every player.
We so often see our players as warriors, tough, strong and physical. But too often we forget that our players are people too, who react in different ways to a win and who react differently to a loss.
Fans may hurt after a loss and be disappointed in a performance, but I have no doubt that the people who feel a loss the most are the players themselves.
Newcastle may have some problems, but I don’t think their players caring too little is it.