A Knights season that promised much when five wins came in the opening eight rounds was derailed by injuries to key players.
An improvement from the wooden spoon position the Knights finished in for the previous three years was to be expected. The arrival of Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, Connor Watson and Slade Griffin made an immediate difference to the team.
Although Newcastle dished out some stellar performances throughout the 2018 Telstra Premiership season, they also proved that finding continuity is going to take some time.
Their injury predicament was such that Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Aidan Guerra were the only two players to take the field in all 24 matches.
"I thought our 2018 season was certainly an improvement on the year before," coach Nathan Brown said.
"But we still finished 11th this year which shows there are still a number of areas in our game that need to improve, not just one.
"Defence is without a doubt the biggest key for us at the moment."
Home & Away record
Home 4-8, away 5-7
The Knights made a significant improvement from their 2017 away record of one win and 11 loses. Winning an extra four games away allowed them to jump from 16th to 11th on the ladder. But their home record was worse than their away record, averaging just 16.7 points scored and 26.0 points conceded, leading to a home record of four wins and eight losses – the same as 2017.
"This year, starting to win a number of games away was a positive step for us but on the other hand our home form wasn't near where we needed it to be," Brown said.
"We have four of our first five games at home in 2019 so when we go on our first camp our home form will certainly be something that we talk about."
Leading try scorers
After playing 20 matches across the season, winger Ken Sio led the team for most tries scored (12) – 10 tries less than the leading try scorer in the competition, Warriors winger David Fusitu'a. Knights second-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon claimed second place on Newcastle's try-scoring leaderboard for the second consecutive year with nine tries.
The Knights were well behind the eight-ball, with prop Herman Ese'ese leading the side in the most post-contact metres per game (44.4). That was well adrift of league leaders Jason Taumalolo (75.8m) and David Klemmer (75m). The Knights gained their most post-contact metres (643) in round 13 against in 30-4 win over the Parramatta Eels.
"This is another area that we will need to improve in, and finding another couple of big and strong forwards would help us in this area next year," Brown said.
"Also, we came into this season with our outside backs a little bit light so getting players like Jesse Ramien, Edrick Lee and getting Tautau [Moga] back - those type of bloke can help us improve that part of our game as well."
Try scoring – attacking channels
Newcastle's left side proved to be the dominant one in 2018, with 38% of tries scored down the left or left centre channel as opposed to 24.0% down the right or centre right channel. The 20 minutes before the break was when the Knights produced 24% of their tries. Their most frequent source of try-scoring possessions came from a penalty – 33 of their 73 tries.
Knights coach Nathan Brown explained those results.
"Kalyn [Ponga] spent the first part of the year mostly attacking down the left - we ended up freeing him up so he could move all over the field as the year went along," Brown said.
"And because Kalyn was a little more down that side, when Pearcey got injured our right side probably never saw quite as much ball.
"Lachy Fitzgibbon is a natural hole runner, he finds space well and he spent most of his time on the left as well."
Tries conceded – defensive channels
The Knights conceded 100 tries this season, with 45% of them coming down the left or centre left channels, while 36.0% were conceded down right or centre right channels. Ken Sio may have finished with the most tries for the Knights this season (12), but he also was top of leaderboard for try causes (22).
"We had times throughout the year where we defended really well and we had some periods where we didn't compete physically," Brown said.
"We had a lot of younger players on our left side at times – [Jack] Cogger and [Cory] Denniss had only played four or five first grade games so we lacked a bit of experience out there on that [left] edge.
"I'm sure when we put some of our blokes back together for another pre-season they'll get more confidence and make good gains on their game."
Tries conceded from penalties
With a competition-wide increase of penalties in 2018, Newcastle went from being ranked third to sixth for the most tries conceded following penalties – yet in 2017 they gave away 32 penalties that resulted in tries in comparison to 35 in 2018. Lock Mitchell Barnett (19) was their most penalised player, closely followed by back-rowers Lachlan Fitzgibbon (17) and Aidan Guerra (15).
"Most tries do come off penalties and sometimes it's where you give the penalty away that's probably the most crucial," Brown said.
"Penalties on tackles three and four are the ones that really killed us because we give away so much field position and didn't make the opposition work hard to earn it. "
Metres gained from offloads
The Knights were ranked second last in the competition for metres gained from the ball carry after an offload – tallying 831.6m over the season. Canterbury doubled that total, topping the leaderboard with 1916m.
Featuring in 23 of Newcastle's games this season, lock Mitchell Barnett (114.3m) led the club in metres gained from offloads. Kalyn Ponga was next best with 96.8m.
When it came to goal kicking, the Knights were struggled in 2018 – with a success rate of 69 per cent. Fullback Kalyn Ponga and winger Ken Sio split the kicking duties and both finished up with a 69 per cent success rate.
Strike Rate Inside Attacking 20m
The Knights proved to be most lethal team in the competition when attacking inside the opposition 20m zone. Their strike rate (9.9%) was clear of both the NRL average (8.6%) and the top-four average (9.3%). They scored 58 of their 73 tries from the 584 play the balls they had inside the opposition 20-metre line.
"When you've got your key players on the field and they've got talent, you certainly feel that if you get them in situations enough that they've got the potential to create scoring opportunities for you," Brown said.
"With Kalyn [Ponga], [Mitchell] Pearcey and Connor [Watson], they're all different in a lot of ways but we feel in those guys that if we can get them in the right spots enough they can cause the opposition a headache."
Missed Tackles per Try Conceded
In 2018, Newcastle missed an average of 31.5 tackles per game while conceding an average of 4.5 line-breaks per game. What proved costly for them was the tackles they missed that resulted in the opposition scoring tries – in which they averaged a try conceded from every 7.6 tackles missed.