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A PLAYER in jail, one in a wheelchair, another in a mental health clinic, an owner gone broke and a coach who has quit.
Some clubs wouldn’t survive a season like Newcastle have endured this year but Knights chairman Paul Harragon firmly believes they will come out of it stronger than ever.
‘‘I don’t know too much about too many things but one thing I do know is that this club has gone through an evolution to a point now where it is in the best position ever to be a powerhouse club,’’ he says.
The man who led the Knights to the famous 1997 grand final win over Manly that all but ended the Super League war always bled red and blue but the way the city rallied behind last weekend’s fund-raising efforts for Alex McKinnon demonstrated that many others in Newcastle still do too.
– PAUL HARRAGON
It is unlikely any other club in the NRL is as closely bound to the area it represents as the Knights, whose players helped fans cope with the 1989 earthquake and mine closures of the late 1990s, while feeding off the support of people who lined the road to Sydney to farewell the team before their 1997 and 2001 grand final triumphs.
Yet since the departure of Michael Hagan – another member of the club’s hall of fame – as coach in 2006, there has been a disconnect between Newcastle and the Knights as fans reacted to not having one of their own in charge or as many local players in the team, and ultimately a club they viewed as a plaything for now-failed mining magnate Nathan Tinkler.
However, the ‘‘Newcastle’’ chant that reverberated around an emotion-charged Hunter Stadium last Sunday as a crowd of 26,401 – the Knights biggest home attendance of the season – turned out to support McKinnon suggested the fans feel it is their club again.
‘‘In the history of the club, we have had some tumultuous years, we have had years where we have been close to administration and folding and carried large debts and all sorts of obstacles, but certainly this year takes the cake,’’ Harragon said of a season which also saw Russell Packer jailed, Darius Boyd seek treatment for depression, Zane Tetevano sacked, Willie Mason arrested for drink driving, players go unpaid by Tinkler and coach Wayne Bennett quit to join Brisbane.
‘‘Right from the very start, it has just been incident after incident but true to Newcastle and Hunter Valley form, people haven’t shied away,’’ he said.
‘‘In fact, if anything they have rallied around and we are gaining strength under fairly bad weather.
‘‘Right now we are about as low as we can be but with a huge light at the end of the tunnel.’’
That light comes not only from the renewed support of fans but the opportunity to rebuild a club that struggled financially almost from the time it was founded in 1988, only kept afloat by the support of fans and funding grants during the Super League war when the Australian Rugby League and then News Ltd identified Newcastle as pivotal to the battle for control of the game.
Former ARL chief executive John Quayle, who oversaw the Knights admission and led the game during the Super League war, believes the club is as important now.
Quayle, who has been engaged by the ARL Commission to help Newcastle through their transitional ownership period after Tinkler was forced to relinquish control of the club two months ago, said the Knights were on the verge of bankruptcy before the former billionaire took over but the NRL ‘‘would not have let them go’’.
‘‘I think back in our time we never had any doubts that Newcastle had to be a major player in the long-term success of league and we have seen that,’’ Quayle said.
‘‘You have got the fifth biggest city in Australia, you have got everything that is going forward and that is why it is important that league moves with the city and again becomes the heart of the city.
‘‘You can have a lot of sporting clubs around but if they don’t have a heart they don’t work that long.’’
Despite the turmoil of Tinkler’s three-year reign, Newcastle now have $5.1 million in the bank and the NRL is planning to establish a seven-person board consisting of four independent directors, two representatives of the club’s new shareholders and a nominee from the Knights Members Club, which has a 20 per cent stake.
‘‘The benefits for the club are that there is a clean sheet of paper and a new board and new ownership and new coach,’’ Harragon said.
‘‘In professional sport you rarely get the opportunity to start from scratch.’’
Quayle said the NRL had not ruled out further private ownership for the Knights but the club would always retain its ties to the community.
‘‘There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the structure is set up so that if a partner comes in then goes out the club always remains viable. That is what we must get right this time.’’
HIGHLIGHT: Adam Ashley-Cooper at Waratahs training yesterday. Picture: Getty ImagesHE’S one of the great Wallabies of the past decade but Adam Ashley-Cooper will finally erase a jarring omission from his record this weekend.
The 94-Test warrior hasn’t played in a Super Rugby finals match during his long and distinguished career.
He gets a chance to remove that glaring blemish from his record tomorrow when he lines up for NSW in their semi-final clash against the Brumbies in Sydney.
The 30-year-old utility back played in losing grand finals as a junior but said his last finals match was for a colts team way back in 2002.
He was with the Brumbies when they won the 2005 Super title but didn’t play in that finals series.
“It’s my first finals experience in 10 years of Super Rugby, so to be part of this is really exciting,” Ashley-Cooper said.
“I played a lot of grand finals in my junior days but I didn’t get the choccies in any of those grand finals.
“My dad always said that you needed to lose one to win one so I’ve lost a few, so maybe I’m due.”
Another former Brumby, forward and Test representative Stephen Hoiles, also views the Waratahs’ finals campaign as a potential career highlight.
Hoiles at least won a club premiership in Sydney but said a Super title would be the pinnacle of his career, even above his 16 Test appearances.
“It would be the highlight of my career, to be honest,” Hoiles said.
“Playing for your country is an amazing achievement. So far I’ve won a club comp for Randwick in 2004 and that’s my highlight because that’s something you do with your team, that’s what you do with your mates.”
As former Brumbies, both Ashley-Cooper and Hoiles know how pumped the Canberra-based franchise will be for a domestic grudge match.
Ashley-Cooper rated the Brumbies’ backline highly, especially their defensive qualities, which will be examined by the attack-minded Tahs this weekend.
“Defensively, they are very strong, so they are certainly going to test our attack,” Ashley-Cooper said.
He nominated inside back Christian Lealiifano as one Brumby who enjoyed on-field banter but stressed NSW would try to avoid any sledging battle.
Hoiles noted there hadn’t been as many verbal fireworks between the teams in the lead-up to Saturday’s game as in the past.
“There seems to be a lot less trash talk now,” Hoiles said.
“Sadly this week it’s been left to Brumby Jack [the Brumbies mascot] to take care of that.” AAP
SUPER RUGBY MATCHES
Crusaders v Sharks: AMI Stadium, Christchurch, 5.35pm
Waratahs v Brumbies:Allianz Stadium, Sydney, 7.40pm
HAPPY DAY: Chanel, left, and Sione Mata’utia celebrate their selection yesterday. Pictures: Darren PatemanSIONE and Chanel Mata’utia will become the first brothers in more than 70 years to make their first-grade debuts in the same game when they run on for the Newcastle Knights against defending premiers Sydney Roosters at Hunter Stadium tonight.
HAPPY DAY: Chanel, left, and Sione Mata’utia celebrate their selection yesterday. Pictures: Darren Pateman
Eighteen-year-old Sione was thrust into the spotlight on Wednesday when Knights coach Wayne Bennett named the former Australian Schoolboys captain toreplace fullback Darius Boyd, who was ruled out indefinitely as he receives treatment for depression.
Bennett dropped another selection bombshell at training yesterday when he named 21-year-old Chanel to replace right winger Akuila Uate, who is struggling with an ongoing knee injury after aggravating it in Newcastle’s 22-8 loss to Gold Coast last Sunday.
League historian and statistician David Middleton said the last ‘‘confirmed time’’ two brothers played their first first-grade game together was in the opening round of 1942, when Doug and Bill McRitchie made their debuts for St George. Middleton said Peter and Graeme Wynn made their debuts for different teams on different days in round one of 1979.
Peter scored a try for Parramatta and Graeme did likewise for St George.
Sione and Chanel will be the second and third of the four Mata’utia brothers to represent the Knights in the NRL.
Their eldest sibling, 23-year-old Peter, played six games for Newcastle in 2011 and 2012 before he left the club at the end of last season to join the Dragons.
Peter, who said he would be at the game tonight, also played against the Roosters when he made his NRL debut for the Knights in May 2011.
Their mother, Maria, has flown back from a family birthday celebration in Samoa to watch her second and fourth sons realise a childhood dream together.
‘‘I think it’s wonderful. It’s just coincidence but both of them have had different journeys to get here, I can tell you,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘Sione was here when I first arrived, playing under-20s, and he’s improved in so many areas it doesn’t matter so I’m really pleased he’s got this opportunity.
‘‘Chanel was the same. He’s improved a great deal as well, and he’s a little bit older than Sione, but again I’m really pleased for him.
‘‘He played for NSW [State Cup] against Queensland [Residents] this year and he was one of the best players there, so he’s always had the ability.
‘‘It was just getting his attitude right. He’s really improved in that area and does a lot of the little things better now than he ever did, so it’s all good.’’
Twenty-year-old Jake Mamo, who made his NRL debut against the Broncos in April, will again replace James McManus on the left wing as McManus has not fully recovered from a toe injury suffered playing for NSW in Origin III.
That means the key positions of fullback and the two wingers will be filled by two debutants and a rookie who has played just five games.
Newcastle’s regular back three – Boyd, McManus and Uate – played 491 NRL games, 32 Tests and 15 State of Origin matches between them.
Bennett believed Sione demonstrated confidence and composure beyond his 18 years, and was comfortable he could handle whatever the Roosters throw at him.
Usually a centre, Sione has played fullback in the team’s National Youth Cup (under-20s) team in recent weeks.
Robbie Rochow (groin) did not train yesterday but Bennett was certain he would play tonight.
Bennett sensed the Knights were keen to make amends for a disappointing performance against the Titans last Sunday, when they could not harness the emotion surrounding the return of injured teammate Alex McKinnon.
But Bennett anticipated the premiers were primed to reach their peak over the closing rounds of the regular season.
‘‘They probably just had a little bit of a hangover from winning a premiership.
‘‘That’s been their biggest obstacle this year but this is the time of the season when they’re trying to come into their own because they’ll want to be there in the playoffs and well positioned.’’
Try time: Stephen Hoiles scores against the Hurricanes in May. Photo: Anthony JohnsonNot many said it to Stephen Hoiles, but he knew plenty thought it.
One day, at a coaching clinic at Newington during his three-year absence from playing because of a mysterious, mind-numbingly annoying injury, someone said it.
”What are you going to do now that you’re retired?” a former player asked.
”I’m not retired,” Hoiles said.
”You’re one of those blokes, are you?” the player laughed. ”Still hanging on.”
Hoiles did not reply, but noted it nonetheless.
”I thought, ‘I’ll add him to the list. I’ll show him,’ ” he recalls. ”He said what most people were thinking. I never had one friend say, ‘What are you doing?’ I know a lot thought it. And I can understand that. I would think the same if I had mates with two young kids at the end of their career.”
There are injury comeback stories and then there is the story of the 32-year-old from Sydney’s east, who probably should have walked away from an excruciating Achilles tendon injury and found a career post-football but then took the road less travelled.
He was not prepared to watch his career end with him cleaning out his locker at the Brumbies one Saturday morning in Canberra, and driving back to Sydney. No way.
Instead, he rented out the family’s Coogee home, moved in with the in-laws, funded his own surgery and rehab and fought his way back.
Now he finds himself starting for the Waratahs against the Brumbies on Saturday night, before a possible record crowd at Allianz Stadium, with the NSW side never better placed to win a Super Rugby title.
”I’ve had the most enjoyable season of my career,” Hoiles says. ”It feels like a club team. It’s got that feel about it. And maybe it’s because my mentality is different. I am just playing.”
Justplaying. In this era of professionalism, when it is about the next contract, the next endorsement, the next code switch, it is a refreshing thing to hear.
If you Google Hoiles’ name, one of the first things that pops up in the search engine is ”Stephen Hoiles retire”.
”I quite often said I hadn’t retired,” he says.
The fact is he had been away from the game for three years. He had slipped off the edge of the radar, as broken players often do.
The nightmare started in 2010 when he was labouring through matches for the Brumbies with a stiff foot.
The Brumbies advised an operation that would sideline him for three months. When he came back, he had a new, sharp pain in his heel. He played a handful of minutes in 2011 and that was it.
He was sent to the Australian Institute of Sport for treatment. No good. They tried putting him on anti-depressants because it helps with neural pain.
”I was sitting in Canberra for six weeks like a zombie,” Hoiles says. ”I tried everything. I said, ‘That’s not working. I’m just a junkie with a sore foot now.’ ”
Then Brumbies coach Jake White, who he never really got on with, showed him the door.
”That was really tough,” he says. ”I had been there for five years, I’d been captain, and I’d watched the shitfight unfold; coaches getting sacked and players moved on … That’s why I kept playing. My last memory of footy was that year-and-a-half debacle. In a week, I was out. I didn’t get to speak to the team. I came in one Saturday morning, cleaned out my locker and drove home to Sydney. It was an empty feeling.”
Hoiles returned home to Sydney and trained with the Tahs during the pre-season. The red bucket he used to ice his heel every day became a fixture at Moore Park.
”I’d put it in the ice bucket every day,” he says. ”From the day from the time my son was born until he was two.”
One day he jogged on the sand with his kids at the beach. He could not walk the next day. He could not surf. He had to wear sandshoes to the beach. ”I looked like a Swedish tourist.”
It was a Swedish surgeon who rescued him.
Hakan Alfredson is renowned as the best tendon specialist on the planet. He takes his craft seriously: as a young doctor he wanted to snap his own tendon and then find the best way to fix it.
Hoiles and his father Alan caught 11 flights in 11 days, sleeping on the floors of airports, to have surgery in Sweden.
”It wasn’t until I got to Sweden that they found a bone fragment that was lodged in my tendon,” he says. ”That was the new pain. It wasn’t tendonitis. It was from the first surgery. I always find it interesting when people say they don’t have any regrets. I regret that first operation. It took three years of my footy career away.”
His first game back was for his beloved Randwick, in second grade, buzzing with nerves at Coogee Oval.
The next week he played in the first grade semi, tore his hammy in the second minute but fought on, knowing that he had to show the Tahs that he could still play.
He fronted for Waratahs pre-season last October prepared to play for nothing. Coach Michael Cheika put him on a supplementary contract.
So Hoiles is effectively playing for match payments. He can expect to make no more than $50,000 this season, although a new deal beckons.
”It’s disappointing what’s happened financially,” he says. ”But I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me. I’ve had a dream run. I’ve sold my unit in Canberra, moved in with the in-laws, my wife went back to work, and we didn’t have a third kid.”
But there have been upsides.
”In a weird way, it’s made my wife and I a lot closer. When I came back, I realised how much your career means to your family. And a lot of those people wondered if I was doing the right thing. But they respected what I was doing, because they knew what I was like.”
What is Stephen Hoiles like? A footballer who is just playing, for all the right reasons.
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Atmospherical wins at Kembla Grange in December. Photo: Sylvia LiberMr Ed she’s not, but this is one pretty smart filly.
While Fairfax Media was on a photo shoot earlier this week, racehorse Atmospherical showed she has created a novel way of escaping the confines of stable life – by letting herself out of her box.
So well has she mastered the art, stable staff at Warwick Farm have been stunned to come across the filly in the middle of her party trick.
She pops her head over her stable door, picks up the latch with her teeth and drags it open, to the amazement of onlookers.
“We’ve seen her do it before so the latch is doubly locked when she’s in her box unattended, to stop her getting out,” trainer David Pfieffer said.
“But she’s showed she can rule the roost on the track and she also rules the roost at home too. She thinks she can let herself out whenever she wants. We have to keep an extra eye on her as she has a few tricks.”
And she can run fast too. The horse has already won a stakes race in Scone and her trainers are now looking at entering her in more feature races during the Melbourne Spring Carnival.
“Every time we raise the bar she keeps improving,” Pfieffer said.
We’re not sure if he was talking about her racetrack deeds or those at home.
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