It’s not the combination we expected to see in August but consistency in Newcastle's spine has been the major catalyst for driving the Knights all the way to a finals campaign in 2023.
An injury-free run in key positions and the return of Kalyn Ponga to fullback has Adam O'Brien's side in the top eight for the first time this season after stringing together five-straight wins and aiming for a sixth against the Bulldogs on Sunday.
The side's resurrection in July has saved their season with the current spine of Ponga, Tyson Gamble, Jackson Hastings and Phoenix Crossland heading for their 10th consecutive appearance together.
The fab four are now the longest-standing spine since Ponga, Kurt Mann, Mitchell Pearce and Andrew McCullough had a run of eight games in 2020.
Newcastle started the season with Lachlan Miller and Jayden Brailey partnering Ponga and Hastings in the spine but the injury to Brailey and Ponga's trip to Canada for concussion tests forced O'Brien to look at plan B.
The numbers show the continuity of the past nine weeks has the Knights primed with their defensive ability working and a flourish of points in attack.
All tries from Dolphins vs Newcastle Knights
The Knights have won six of their last nine games, with an average win margin of 22.8 points and average loss margin of just 4.7 points in defeats to the Panthers, Roosters and Broncos.
In rounds 12-17 the Knights came up with 9.6 errors per game and in their last five victories have that has increased to an average of 12.2.
However, possession (52.8%) has increased and points conceded have dropped by an average of six points per game.
This shows that although the Knights have made more errors since Round 17, they are backing up their errors defensively and still have more than their share of the football.
Ponga’s switch… back
The Knights have proven it’s certainly not a one man show scenario in the Hunter but the form of Ponga since his return to fullback should put an end to any thought of him moving to the halves again.
In his nine games since taking back the No.1 reigns the former Maroons fullback has produced some of his career-best football, scoring five tries, setting up 11 and averaging 180 run metres and six tackle breaks per game.
Since the skipper’s last game at five-eighth in Round 12, he's also helped connect the dots in defence with the Knights conceding 26.1 points per outing in the nine rounds prior and just 16.6 points following for a difference of over 10 points.
Ponga on song in Perth
After beating the Bulldogs by 66, Wests Tigers by 16 and Raiders by 22, the running game of halfback Jackson Hastings must also be credited for the Knights’ ability to put a game to bed.
Struggling to find a balance in guiding the team around the park while also freeing up Ponga at five-eighth, Hastings publicly revealed he wanted to incorporate more running into his game and since the spine reshuffle in Round 13 he notably has.
Heading into Round 24, only Nicho Hynes and Nathan Cleary have engaged the line more than Hastings this season and the 2023 recruit has also increased his average run metres per game by 20.5 in the last nine matches.
Any new halves pairing takes time to find their own attacking DNA and while Hastings has never been the flashiest of halfbacks, he has shown what can be achieved through a gritty, resilient brand of football.
Knights halves in perfect sync
The five-eighth Gamble
Since Mann and Pearce led Newcastle to the finals in 2020, Newcastle have churned through five-eighths aplenty under O'Brien to find the right balance with Gamble's inclusion also allowing Ponga to return to his preferred role.
Not only does Gamble compliment halfback Hastings nicely in the spine but the former Bronco’s defensive efforts have been a big factor in the Knights’ recent turnaround.
While Ponga had a shaky start to the season with ongoing concussion concerns, the skipper averaged just 5.7 tackles per game at five-eighth.
Meanwhile, in Newcastle's five-straight victories, Gamble’s size and strength has been the difference in the front line with the 27-year-old averaging 21.6 tackles per game since Round 13.
The rise of Phoenix
The biggest improvement in the spine has come at hooker. Newcastle's season took a turn for the worst when hooker Jayden Brailey suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Round 6.
After letting go Chris Randall to the Gold Coast in the off-season and not having a notable back-up hooker in the squad, Crossland came to the fore.
Crossland double in big win
Having grown up playing in the halves and struggling to cement a starting position in O'Brien's 17, the Newcastle junior has been a revelation for the Knights since deputising at dummy half this year.
Crossland has made the No. 9 position his own in 2023 and has formed a significant part of the Knights new-look spine, averaging 41.1 tackles per game and scoring four tries since the quartet was formed in Round 13.
More importantly though he's asking questions of the defence, getting his big men around him on the front foot and servicing his playmakers with quality ball that allows the Knights the ability to swing a game at any moment.
Match: Knights v Bulldogs
Round 24 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle