For the past 13 weeks, the Newcastle Knights have toiled away in preparation for the 2014 NRL season.
Amid all the hype of last year’s top four finish, the players returned to training on November 14 looking to improve on that impressive surge through September.
In the ensuing 103 days, the Knights have trained six days a week and completed approximately 130 sessions in total.
With all that hard work of the pre-season now officially over, let’s take a look back at the Club’s summer slog and all the moments that mattered.
For the Knights, the pre-season kicked off with fitness testing at the University of Newcastle minus those players still on World Cup duty in England.
First on the agenda was the traditional yet torturous beep test, a series of timed short runs that requires participants to out sprint a beep sound that progressively gets quicker with time.
Chris Houston came home first for the forwards, while Jarrod Mullen and new recruit Michael Dobson starred in the backs department.
Afterwards Mullen spoke about his motivation to go one better in 2014 after the previous years effort to qualify for the Preliminary Final.
“For me personally, I’d never experienced a game to get into a grand final,” Mullen says.
“So it hurts a lot more getting that close and getting beat, but it just gives you a lot more motivation to train harder this year and to get back there.
“That’s what Newcastle fans deserve is to see their team fighting out for the title.”
For Knights' Director of Performance Jeremy Hickmans, the pre-season is the most important time of the year to physically prepare the players for the rigors of the NRL season.
Hickmans starts the summer by revealing he has made a few alterations to the Club's training schedule to cater for the NRL's rule changes around the ruck.
“We’ve changed the routine up a little bit this year to put a bit more of an emphasis on power and speed,” Hickmans said.
“So I think we’ve got a good base in the guys now and it gives us a chance to really chase a little bit more of that high end performance stuff."
The Club also had a number of NYC players step up to the full-time squad.
From winger Jake Mamo through to back-rower Joseph Tapine and outside back Sione Mata’utia, the Knights' were well represented by rookies.
For Mamo, the opportunity to train with Newcastle's top squad was a childhood dream.
“I’ve always played footy and growing up as a kid I always wanted to play NRL,” Mamo said.
“Now this is the next step I guess.”
For the next three weeks, the Knights' go to work on the training paddock with a heap of conditioning.
This a full-on period for the players, who put in plenty of hours to ensure they are physically ready for the demands of the world's best rugby league competition.
Coach Wayne Bennett's return to training on December 4 was a welcomed sight for the players after weeks of running.
Forward Chris Houston was particularly happy to see the supercoach in town.
"It's great to see Wayne and get the chance to actually touch a footy, because all we've been doing is running," Houston said.
With Bennett back and barking orders, the Knights' preparations for 2014 start to ramp up considerably.
This increase in intensity coincides with the gradual return of the Club's World Cup players in the lead-up to Christmas.
Forward Zane Tetevano, who represented the Cook Islands, tells Knights TV about the joy of being a part of the tiny island nations first ever World Cup victory.
“It was a privilege,” Tetevano enthused.
“We had our minister there and he said, ‘if you ever go back to the Cook Islands you’ll be treated like kings.’
It was a similar feeling for the Knights' Aku Uate and Korbin Sims, who helped guide Fiji to their second consecutive semi-final appearance at the Cup.
Club assistant coach Rick Stone was on deck as the Fijian head mentor and couldn't have been happier to see Uate and Sims take charge as leaders.
“Seeing Aku and Korbin get involved at the highest level in the cultural and the prayer and all the stuff that is Fijian at the World Cup, well it made me really proud,” Stone said.
On top of the returning World Cup brigade, the Club also had a number of new recruits daring to dream big.
One of these players was former Raiders half Michael Dobson, who had spent five years in the English Super League with Hull KR, Wigan and Catalans.
“I’m at the age now where I’m in the peak of my career at 27 and I want to give it a good crack," Dobson said.
“I definitely don’t think I’m too old and I still feel like I’ve got plenty of first grade left in me."
From the Knights' newest recruit, the attention then shifted to the Club's most recent retiree - legendary No.9 Danny Buderus.
The man affectionately known as 'Bedsy' officially joined Newcastle's off-field team in December in a range of roles from helping out at training through to corporate hospitality.
“I’m thrilled to continue my long association with the Knights and help out the Club that gave me so much during my career,” said Buderus, only months after his stellar career ended after the finals loss against eventual premiers the Roosters.
Buderus wasn't the only new addition to the Knights' coaching staff over the summer, with former Brisbane, Queensland and Australian five-eighth Kevin Walters joining as a halves coach.
Walters quickly went to work, vowing to take Knights’ halves to the next level in 2014.
Speaking of improvement, skipper Kurt Gidley was one player particularly pumped about the prospect of playing after two years of injury setbacks.
Gidley spent most of the pre-season recovering after surgery on his left foot, so he was naturally pumped when he started running again in early January.
“It feels like I’m back,” he enthused.
“All the rehab stuff is hard work and it’s not a great deal of fun, but when you start running on the field it does feel like you are a part of it again.”
The Knights' pre-season trials officially kicked off with the extravaganza of the Festival of Indigenous Rugby League at Hunter Stadium.
Newcastle lined-up against a non-elite First Nations Goannas side coached by NSW Origin coach Laurie Daley. The Goannas team also boasted a number of retired NRL stars, including David Peachey and Rod Jensen.
For halfback Tyrone Roberts, the First Nations trial was a huge occasion given he was named captain and coach Bennett spoke about his pride in Roberts' rise from shy rookie to Knights skipper.
"Tyrone is a pretty outstanding young man," Bennett said.
"He is Indigenous and I wanted to reward him because I know it would mean a lot to him."
It was also a big moment for the Mata'utia brothers Chanel, Pat and Sione. The trio lined up together for the first time in the game.
"We saw the Burgess brothers at Souths last year and thought, 'How cool would it be to all play together like that," the brothers joked.
The youngest Mata'utia sibling, Sione, was especially excited about playing against the Goannas.
"I can't wait for my first game with the senior guys," he enthused. "I've got some new boots, some nice fluro ones. You know, something bright so I can stand out."
Leaving an impression was exactly what Mata'utia did against the First Nations side, playing a leading role in the comprehensive 52-12 trial win.
He was backed up by fellow rookies Mamo and Tapine, who scored a hat-trick and a double between them in impressive debuts.
The big win was also Clint Newton’s first game back at the Club after six years. He told Knights TV the major reason he has returned to the Club is to mentor the next generation of players.
It also a night to remember for the Knights' new recruits Minto and Dobson, who both played crucial roles in the trial triumph.
Another highlight of the week was Club veteran Timana Tahu continuing a family tradition by coaching the Newcastle Yowies to an 18-12 victory over the Southern Dingoes in the final of the Interstate Knockout Challenge.
With the Festival of Indigenous Rugby League done and dusted, the Knights then moved on to the NRL Auckland Nines tournament.
There was a heap of hype heading into the inaugural event, with forward Beau Scott predicting the Club's young speedsters to shine.
"I think there are a couple of young kids to watch out for," Scott said.
"Young Mamo is lightning, so it will be good to see him get a run."
Scott must have known he was on a good thing, because that's exactly what Mamo did at the Nines.
Newcastle opened their campaign against Cronulla, losing in the final 30 seconds. On the back of some strong words from coach Bennett, the Knights hit back in the second match with a comprehensive 25-14 win over the Titans.
It was winning form that continued on the Sunday with a dominant 25-0 triumph over the Tigers.
They progressed through to the quarter-final stage against the Broncos and looked strong early, before Mullen injured his hamstring and the men in red and blue dropped off in the second half to bow out of the tournament.
Despite the result and the Mullen injury, Bennett was pleased with the Knights' overall performance at the Nines.
"I thought their effort was still good and they kept turning up," Bennett said.
He was also a fan of the nines concept.
"I think it was a great advertisement for rugby league," Bennett said.
"The fans have been outstanding and the atmosphere at the ground was just great."
Newcastle rounded out their pre-season with a trial against Canberra in Tamworth two weeks ago.
The Knights' charged to a dominant 34-14 victory over the Raiders, a win set-up by an impressive second-half performance.
Gidley's successful return from off-season surgery on his left foot was undoubtedly the highlight of the win though.
The captain came on in the final quarter against the Green Machine and crossed for a try, although he joked afterwards that the four-pointer wasn't officially recorded.
"The boys have told me tries don’t count in trials,” Gidley grined.
Prop Kade Snowden (knee and calf) and winger James McManus (ankle) also made successful comebacks in the Raiders trial victory.
With the Club's trial matches officially over, the Knights' headed back to the training paddock for some fine-tuning ahead of the opening round.
It was also a chance to go over who has impressed in pre-season training and why they'll perform well in 2014.
Let's start with centre Dane Gagai, a player Club insiders insist has never been fitter.
In fact, Gidley has no doubts the Mackay-born flyer is set to reach even greater heights this season on the back of his best pre-season to date.
"I think he has been the best athlete I've seen through this pre-season," Gidley said.
Gidley has also impressed this summer, adding five kilos of lean muscle to his frame. The Club's coaching staff hopes this added bulk will help with his move to the hooker position.
While the captain added weight, centre Joey Leilua lost seven kilos over the pre-season and is now feeling fitter than ever before.
Mullen, meanwhile, topped the overall athletic ratings and also impressed with his speed. Uate was equally as effective in that department, while Mamo claimed the fastest and aerobically fittest titles.
Sims was the fastest forward and big boppers Tetevano and Pat Vaivai were the strongest in the gym. Add in a special mention for Roberts, who also excelled in pre-season training and across the board the Club had a heap of stars this summer.
Now it’s time for footy and the Penrith Panthers are ready and waiting. Bring it on.
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