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Bid to lift community like 1997 team behind brave comeback

Knights players spoke before Sunday’s courageous 14-14 draw with Penrith about trying to inspire those in the Newcastle community affected by the COVID-19 pandemic like the 1997 premiership-winning team did.

Back then job losses in the local mining industry left many people in Newcastle doing it tough while the game was torn apart by the Super League war but the Hunter community drew inspiration from the success of the Knights.

Now the 2020 side want to rally Newcastle in a similar way.

Newcastle director of football Danny Buderus said after Knights overcame the loss of Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson in the opening nine minutes to fight back from 14-0 down that he believed the talk about what the 1997 team achieved had an influence on the young side.

"That last 60 minutes was amazing," Buderus said. "My phone has been going off from past players and current players. You start to think about the last few years and where the club has been.

"We spoke about some parallels between 1997 and 2020 with two competitions, a lot of unemployment and giving some people some hope out of this situation.

Pearce leaves the field in the first half

"I think that is one thing they have really gravitated to and I think that is what that last 60 minutes was - I think it was giving some people in the community some inspiration and they follow the team. It was a real special effort from them."

Pearce lasted just five minutes before being assisted from the field with concussion and Watson followed four minutes later after injuring his right ankle, leaving the Knights with debutants at hooker and fullback, and utility Kurt Mann having to take on all the playmaking responsibilities.

Queensland prop Tim Glasby also had to leave the field midway through the first half for a HIA, while the Knights were already without suspended fullback Kalyn Ponga, injured hooker Jayden Brailey and forwards Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Mitch Barnett.

Fitzgibbon strained his hamstring at training on Saturday and was replaced by Brodie Jones, the third debutant after fullback Tex Hoy and hooker Chris Randall, while centre Bradman Best was making just his third NRL appearance.

After the match, Pearce spoke to the players and outlined how the rookies had come of age in an empty Campbelltown Stadium where the only spectators were members of their families after being exemptions for the occasion.

"He spoke about them being proud of themselves and how they didn’t wait to become a leader today. They just dragged each other along, regardless of age," Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien said of Pearce’s speech.

Randall finished with 71 tackles, Jones made 51, Hoy produced two first-half try-saving efforts and became Newcastle’s best hope of an extra-time victory as he grew in confidence, while Best scored two second-half tries.

Match Highlights: Panthers v Knights

His first came after the Knights had defended five consecutive sets on their line gave the team belief they could win the game and while the match finished in a draw it was just as good for O’Brien.

"If you had said to me yesterday that we were going to lose Fitz in the captain’s run, jump in a bus for three hours and come down and lose Junior and Connor in 10 minutes, and we would walk away with a draw I would have grabbed it with two hands," O’Brien said.

"I’m really proud of them, we had three kids out there making their debut and Bradman in his third game, and the adversity wasn’t late in the game, it was 10 minutes in.

Knights: Round 3

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"We just tackled and that probably showed when we did get the ball … but they were out on their feet, they were digging deep to defend their try line.

"The toughness was certainly something that we spoke about in the pre-season. Probably the mantra of the pre-season was getting comfortable with the uncomfortable."