Consistency in Newcastle’s spine has been the driving force behind the Knights‘ successful run to the finals in 2023. Despite not being the expected combination, the injury-free run in key positions, coupled with Kalyn Ponga‘s return to fullback, has propelled Adam O’Brien‘s side into the top eight for the first time this season. With five consecutive wins under their belt, the Knights are looking to extend their winning streak against the Bulldogs on Sunday.
The current spine of Ponga, Tyson Gamble, Jackson Hastings, and Phoenix Crossland is heading for their 10th consecutive appearance together. This quartet has clicked into shape and has become the longest-standing spine since Ponga, Kurt Mann, Mitchell Pearce, and Andrew McCullough had a run of eight games in 2020. Initially, Newcastle started the season with Lachlan Miller and Jayden Brailey partnering Ponga and Hastings in the spine. However, injuries and Ponga’s concussion tests led to a reshuffle, resulting in the current successful combination.
The past nine weeks have shown the Knights‘ defensive ability and flourish of points in attack, priming them for the finals. With an average win margin of 22.8 points in their last six out of nine games, the Knights have displayed their dominance on the field. Their average loss margin of just 4.7 points in their defeats to the Panthers, Roosters, and Broncos further demonstrates their competitive edge. Although they have made more errors since Round 17, the Knights have backed up their errors defensively and still maintained possession, resulting in a drop in points conceded.
Kalyn Ponga‘s return to fullback has been instrumental in the Knights‘ success. In his nine games since taking back the No.1 position, Ponga has showcased some of his career-best football. With five tries, 11 try assists, an average of 180 run metres, and six tackle breaks per game, Ponga has been a standout player. Additionally, his impact on the team’s defense is evident, with the Knights conceding significantly fewer points following his move back to fullback.
Jackson Hastings‘ running game deserves credit for the Knights‘ ability to secure victories. Since the spine reshuffle, Hastings has incorporated more running into his game, providing a balance between guiding the team and freeing up Ponga. Only Nicho Hynes and Nathan Cleary have engaged the line more than Hastings this season, highlighting his attacking prowess. With an increase in average run metres per game by 20.5 in the last nine matches, Hastings has proved valuable to the team’s success.
Tyson Gamble‘s inclusion as the five-eighth has brought balance to the team’s spine. His defensive efforts have played a significant role in the Knights‘ recent turnaround. In contrast, Ponga struggled with his defensive contributions at the start of the season. However, in the Knights‘ five consecutive victories, Gamble’s size and strength have made a difference in the front line, averaging 21.6 tackles per game since Round 13.
The biggest improvement in the Knights‘ spine has come from hooker Phoenix Crossland. After Jayden Brailey‘s season-ending injury, Crossland stepped up to the plate and made the No. 9 position his own. Averaging 41.1 tackles per game and scoring four tries since the quartet was formed in Round 13, Crossland has been a revelation for the Knights. His ability to ask questions of the defense, facilitate forward momentum, and provide quality ball has allowed the Knights to swing a game at any moment.
In conclusion, the consistency in Newcastle’s spine, with the return of Ponga and the inclusion of Gamble, Hastings, and Crossland, has been the driving force behind the Knights‘ successful run to the finals. The quartet has formed a formidable combination, displaying dominance in both attack and defense. As the Knights gear up for their finals campaign, their spine will continue to play a crucial role in their quest for success.