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Monkey off Fitzgibbon's back as finals berth ends dark Knights chapter

After going through the worst of times at Newcastle since his NRL debut in 2015, Lachlan Fitzgibbon can't wait to "get the monkey off the back" in this year's playoffs.

Fitzgibbon has played 76 games for the Knights but has never had the chance to play finals football.

Until now.

With a 38-10 win over Cronulla last Friday, the sixth-placed Knights have sealed their spot in the top eight for the first time since 2013.

This marks the end of the longest finals drought in club history, a period which included a change in ownership from the controversial Nathan Tinkler era, four coaches and the wooden spoon three years in a row.

Fitzgibbon lived through that period, so for him, playing finals footy is extra special.

"I’ve waited a long time for this. I’m close to 80 games into my career and it has been well documented how many games we have lost. Finally playing finals is a massive monkey off my back," he said.

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"One of my goals has been to play finals footy, but more importantly for our club, the community and our fans, this is a really big deal.

"It’s a great feeling to know I’ll be there, but I have no idea what it will feel like to run out for my first finals game. I imagine it’s going to be bigger than when we won the NSW Cup grand final in 2015 and that was a pretty big deal in my eyes."

One of the most well-known footy clichés is "taking it one week at a time".

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Traditionally, so close to finals, teams tend to manage their expectations and only focus on the week ahead. It’s rare to hear a player talk about finals before the regular season ends.

But for the Knights, given how long its been since the post-season was in the equation, there was an acknowledgement of the special moment in the sheds last week after beating the Sharks.

"The week before against the Warriors, we didn’t really want to talk about playing finals," Fitzgibbon said.

"We wanted to take it one game at time. But after we got hammered by the Warriors, there was a deeper meaning to the game against the Sharks with the potential for a big reward at the end of the game, so we did touch on it during the week and then definitely after the game. It was a big relief.

"Now it’s about winning the last three game of the year and winning as many games as we can through the finals."

Throughout 2020, there has been plenty of discussion about the value of this year’s Telstra Premiership and whether, given all the disruptions including less games and a lack of home-ground advantage, whether there should be an asterisk next to the name of the eventual champions.

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For Fitzgibbon, it should be the opposite.

"I think this year is probably the most difficult year you could win a premiership," he said.

"Whoever wins this year is probably even more deserving than previous years because of the adversity that every player and every club has had to overcome this year.

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"The eventual winners should go down as the 2020 premiers and it should be one that is always remembered.

"We have one of the best supporter bases in the NRL and to have not played finals footy since 2013 had made them a little bit antsy. I’m glad we have been able to do it this year. Hopefully we can go all the way.

"I hope they know how much they mean to us as players. They turn up week in week out, even in the years when we running last, at every home game we would have 25,000 people there. There aren’t too many clubs with a supporter base like that.

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"The message to them is thanks for standing by us for so many years and riding with us through the tough times. Now hopefully they can ride with us through the good times. They deserve it."

One other person who deserves it is new coach Adam O’Brien even though, Fitzgibbon jokes, the former Storm assistant can be prone to a Craig Bellamy-like spray.

For Fitzgibbon, one of the most pleasing things about this year is how well him and his teammates have bought into the philosophies of the new coach and how much improvement there has been in individual players like Daniel Saifiti and Kurt Mann.

"I can’t speak highly enough of Adam. He has been sensational for me and the rest of the team. So hopefully we can reward him this year and in years to come."