Knights coach Nathan Brown has challenged his players to give their best effort for 80 minutes against Wests Tigers on Friday night as a fitting tribute to one of their most cherished clubmen.
Newcastle’s home ground has been renamed Mark Hughes Foundation Stadium for the week as part of Beanies for Brain Cancer Round, inspired by the two-time premiership-winning former Knights utility back and NSW fullback.
Hughes kicked off his eponymously named foundation in 2014 to raise awareness and funds for brain cancer research, after he was diagnosed with it the previous year.
Playing for the Red V, Brown played a handful of games against Hughes in the late 1990s, and has got to know him more since taking the coaching reins at the Knights in 2016.
Brown acknowledged the importance of the two points for the eighth-placed Knights (18) and 12th-placed Wests Tigers (16), and the significance of Robbie Farah’s 300th game, but “we’ve got so much to play for”.
“I’d be disappointed if they’re more hungry than us,” Brown said on Thursday.
“It may be Robbie’s 300th, but we’re playing for a position on the ladder ourselves, and obviously representing Mark Hughes, so I’d like to think we’ve got more to play for than the Tigers.
"The Beanies [for Brain Cancer] Round has been embraced by all of the NRL, but Mark Hughes is a Newcastle boy, and that should be another extra special thing for our boys to play for.
“Obviously there’s positions on the ladder, which are important … [but] we cannot go out there and not put in a performance to support his round, because he’s what Newcastle was built on.
“He’s a player who I suppose wasn’t the most talented but achieved at the highest end, and is one of only a number of players to play in two grand finals.
“What he’s done for not only him and his family but the broader community for brain cancer is a credit to him, so we need to make sure we honour him tomorrow by the way we compete.
“It doesn’t guarantee a win, but we certainly wouldn’t want any players coming off tomorrow night not leaving everything out on the field.”
Brown resisted any urge to make changes to the team that competed for almost an hour against the Roosters last Saturday, only to capitulate to a 48-10 loss – their worst this year.
“It wasn’t any one person last week – and sure, some players were worse than others – but as a whole, the 17 players taking part need to compete hard for each other for long, consistent periods of the game and not pick and choose,” Brown said.
“You’ve got to have some sort of loyalty as a coach, and as a staff and a playing group, you want to get the best out of people. Dropping people is not always the answer, but you also make people aware that … below-par efforts are not acceptable either.
“It’s always a fine line but we’ve stuck with the 17 this week … and we’ll need to make some big improvements if we’re going to trouble the Tigers.”
Affected by significant State of Origin representation for the first time in Brown’s tenure as coach, and injuries to several key players, Newcastle have lost four of their past five.
But Brown said they showed enough during the first two-thirds of the season, including a run of six straight wins and seven from eight games, to feel confident of making a noise in the run to the finals.
“Most sides have little blips in the year … and it’s hard to be up all the time. We’ve had a bit of a flat spot and we need to get a bit of a wriggle on,” he said.
“The boys have shown over a period of time where we certainly know what works for us, and when we get that right, we seem to do well against any sort of opposition.
“If we get our competitive bit back, and work hard for each other as we did for that 10-week block of footy, we certainly know that puts us in situations to win games. It doesn’t guarantee us a win, but it certainly puts us in a position where we can do well.
“For us, it’s not do-or-die, it’s more about getting back to doing what we know works for us, and if we’re doing that, the results come along and if you don’t do that, anyone can beat anyone.”