It would take something particularly bad to take the shine off what has been an incredible late-season resurgence for the Newcastle Knights, but CEO Philip Gardner went some way to doing that this week. The Knights will do battle with the Canberra Raiders on Sunday in an elimination final in Newcastle.
The Knights are the odds-on favourites to take down Ricky Stuart's men, which would be a 10th-consecutive victory to continue their extraordinary turnaround. Adam O'Brien's side sat 14th on the ladder after 17 rounds, and officials were reportedly sounding out replacements for the coach for next year.
But they thrashed the Bulldogs 66-0 the following week and have gone on to win nine games in a row, finishing the regular season fifth to secure a home final. Things have finally started looking up for the Knights, and the excitement has been building all week in Newcastle.
The only dampener on the party has been the comments of their CEO at the club's end-of-season awards night. Gardner gave a speech at the Danny Buderus Medal on Tuesday night, but finished it off with an all-time clanger.
“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt - long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep you interested," he said. According to reports the joke fell completely flat, with the club's NRLW players failing to see the funny side. The presentation was also being MC'd by Lara Pitt of Fox Sports, who has helped inspire a generation of female commentators and presenters in male-dominated sports.
Gardner's speech had already referenced how important the club's NRLW team was, and the CEO had outlined his desire to turn them into the best female team in world sport. The presentation night was live-streamed on the Knights website, but Gardner's speech had been scrubbed from the record when the recording was re-posted on Wednesday morning.
Did he think it was the 1986 presentation night?
— Mark Hindle (@MarkHindle29) September 7, 2023
Newcastle Knights CEO, Philip Gardner, what a tosser! Would have loved to see Hannah Southwell crash tackle him off the stage.. pic.twitter.com/JTyD6PoKw8
— Shane Abell (@ShaneAbell) September 7, 2023
Newcastle out to continue winning ways against Canberra
Before 2023, the Knights had only finished one of his three previous seasons with a winning record. Last year's campaign saw them finish 14th, and this season appeared to be heading in the same direction when they had just five wins to their name in late June.
"It was definitely tough, not only for us players but for Adam and his coaching staff," Knights veteran Lachlan Fitzgibbon said this week about the speculation that was swirling around O'Brien's future. "It's hard to ignore, when that type of media pressure is in the papers. Newcastle's a small town, there's a lot of talk around the town and on the TV. It's a bit of the elephant in the room, but we knew we needed to stick solid."
O'Brien knew better times were just around the corner and stuck solid with his approach and beliefs. "They haven't changed from what they believed in, what they instilled in us during the pre-season," Fitzgibbon said.
"When it did get tough, they didn't go looking for answers that weren't there. We couldn't look too far in to what everyone was saying externally about us. We just had to knuckle down, be ourselves and try to put that at the back of our minds and win footy games."
The Knights will be boosted by the inclusion of Kalyn Ponga against Canberra, but he will be hampered by an AC shoulder injury. "The shoulder is good," Ponga said on Thursday.
"I trained today, got everything I needed out of it. So pretty confident I am playing Sunday. Today was that biggest session, to tick that off gives me confidence into Sunday.
"I'll do everything I can to manage what I can leading into the game. But I do feel pretty good. I'm pretty excited about the occasion."
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