Phil Gould's mid-season swipe at the Newcastle Knights has been made to look a little silly after Adam O'Brien's men booked a fairytale NRL finals berth with an eighth straight win on Sunday. The Knights thrashed Cronulla 32-6 at a packed McDonald Jones Stadium to guarantee themselves a home final, with a shoulder injury to Kalyn Ponga the only dampener on another superb win.
The lowest Newcastle can finish the regular season is sixth, meaning they will host a home final for the first time since 2006. It's a remarkable turnaround for a side that languished in 14h place after 17 rounds, with O'Brien's position as head coach coming under serious scrutiny.
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O'Brien's decision to grant his players a mid-season break after just nine rounds also drew widespread backlash, with Gould was of the most vocal critics of the move. The Knights were the only team not involved in Magic Round after having the bye in round 10, so O'Brien allowed his players to have some time off.
Phil Gould's swipe over Knights' Bali trip
A number of the playing group travelled to Bali for a short holiday, with Bulldogs supremo Gould slamming the move at the time. “I remember when I was a player and we had byes, (coach) Warren Ryan used to flog us. It put steel in your team, it put steel in your attitude. You are paid to train and play, that’s what you are paid to do. Find something else to do, find another job if you don’t want this job," he said.
Gould was far from the only critic of Newcastle's mid-season trip but the Knights' form at the back end of the season has surely gone a long way to silencing the doubters. Veteran league reporter Phil Rothfield couldn't resist taking a swipe at Gould after Newcastle's eighth straight victory.
Have the @NRLKnights lost a game since Gus smashed them for going to Bali for a few days to freshen up in bye round. Asking for a friend
— BUZZ ROTHFIELD (@BuzzRothfield) August 27, 2023
In answer to Rothfield's less than subtle tweet, the Knights actually lost four matches since that divisive mid-season break, albeit against premiership hopefuls the Sharks, Roosters, Broncos and Panthers. However, their form since that round 17 defeat against two-time premiers, Penrith, has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Many fans agreed with Rothfield's crack at Gould, however, others suggested Newcastle's stunning late season charge had more to do with Christian Welch's infamous crack at the Knights. The Storm forward was caught out in a press conference bagging the Knights for losing to Penrith in round 17, despite the Panthers missing a host of star due to State of Origin. Newcastle did not lose a single game after Welch's swipe.
The story is more that they haven't lost since Welch and Bellamy's presser asking how did they not win against Penrith that night.
— Sam Revill (@WobblinJawSport) August 27, 2023
Definitely haven’t lost since the Welch Bellamy press conference snigger
— Harley (@hdfield7) August 27, 2023
Kalyn Ponga injury a concern for Newcastle
Ponga has been a massive part of Newcastle's resurgence and has established himself alongside Brisbane's Reece Walsh as arguably the best in the competition. Any long-term absence would be disastrous for Newcastle though, given Ponga's pivotal role in resurrecting their season. The Knights are already missing the other key cog in their attack, halfback Jackson Hastings, whose ankle injury forced him out of a second consecutive game on Sunday.
Knights coach Adam O'Brien had no prognosis post-match, but with a home final now locked up intimated he could rest Ponga for the clash with St George Illawarra next week even if the injury wasn't serious. Dane Gagai or Lachie Miller appear the likely options to come in.
"I won't be stupid with (Ponga) that's for sure," O'Brien said. "Lachie Miller hasn't left us yet. He's training well. He'll come in and do a good job."
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