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Knights call on spirit of ’88 to fight off Warriors

CELEBRATION: Try scorer Tyler Randell, left, with Korbin Sims and Sione Mata’utia on Saturday. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
Nanjing Night Net

ACTING Knights skipper Beau Scott described it as ‘‘an ugly win’’.

But they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and from where Newcastle’s 1988 ‘‘Originals’’ were sitting, there must have been a lot to like about Saturday’s 24-14 victory against the Warriors at Hunter Stadium.

Of the 35 surviving players who appeared in the club’s inaugural campaign, 32 travelled from far and wide to attend the 2015 season-opener and lend some moral support to their modern-day counterparts.

Foundation skipper Sam Stewart even delivered an emotional pre-match speech, reflecting on what it meant to wear the red and blue and why those days remain among his most cherished memories.

Some of Newcastle’s current players were not even born when Stewart and his fellow pioneers were living out their dreams, but on Saturday’s evidence the two generations have more in common than just the jerseys on their backs.

In 1988, Newcastle’s no-name battlers went into most games as rank outsiders.

Yet what they lacked in silky skills they made up for with blue-collar grit and toil.

Their coach, the late Allan McMahon, asked them on a weekly basis to ‘‘put your bodies on the line’’ and so they did, without a thought of self-preservation.

They ran hard and tackled even harder, and on the days when the opposition were in a different class, they still competed gamely from kick-off until full-time.

Simple, but effective.

On Saturday, at times you could have been forgiven for thinking nothing much had changed in 27 years.

Midway through the second half, a lesser team than Newcastle may have been thinking it wasn’t their day.

Stung by a contentious eight-point try, then another six-pointer 11 seconds before half-time, the Knights found themselves reduced to 12 men when bench forward David Fa’alogo was sin-binned for a professional foul.

By this stage the Warriors led 14-6 and it appeared almost inevitable they would score again to put Newcastle out of their misery.

Instead the Knights just kept turning up, scrapping and scrambling and forcing errors with last-ditch defence.

Against all odds, they picked up a try with only 12 men on the field, then hit the lead when Scone-born rookie Tyler Randell, a bright prospect who exudes the spirit of ’88, scored from dummy-half.

A further try from Robbie Rochow clinched two points that on another day might have headed back across the Tasman with the Warriors.

McMahon could only have dreamed about the firepower that incumbent Knights coach Rick Stone has at his disposal.

Akuila Uate was back to his explosive best, centre Dane Gagai scored two tries and took a crucial intercept, Joey Leilua was a handful for the defence and teenage Test star Sione Mata’utia reminded everyone of his enormous potential.

Stone admitted he was disappointed with the kicking game of his halves, Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts, but the resilience of his forwards was encouraging.

All this, too, in the absence of skipper Kurt Gidley, a late withdrawal because of a hamstring strain, and while new signing Tariq Sims remains under suspension.

In recent years, no Gidley, no chance, was a time-honoured theory when assessing Newcastle’s prospects.

On Saturday, the Knights scarcely missed a beat without him.

Indeed, with the game’s premier utility sidelined, Randell produced a Gidley-esque performance, playing hooker, halfback and briefly centre to stake a worthy claim for retention.

Stone expects Gidley will be fit for Saturday’s trip to Townsville to face North Queensland, which will create one of those dilemmas that coaches enjoy.

Who to leave out? It’s a tough call, but a scenario Stone will no doubt to prefer to the quandary of wondering who he can bring in.

For Stone, it was a ‘‘satisfying’’ start to his second stint as Newcastle’s head coach, but he is pragmatic enough to realise there are no trophies presented after round one.

‘‘We’ve got heaps of improvement in us, and no doubt the Warriors have too,’’ he said.

‘‘That’s fair. It’s only the first game. We’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got a team there that showed they’re willing to stand up for each other and support each other and really defend for each other.

‘‘Any time you’ve got that sort of makings in your footy team, you’ve got a positive vibe. That’s a good one for us.’’

An ugly win, perhaps. But for the crowd of 16,146, including 32 long-retired footballers, in so many ways it was a sight for sore eyes.

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