The Knights joined the NSWRL in 1988 and by the mid-90s had become a force in the Premiership race, thanks to a couple of brothers in the halves with the last name ‘Johns’. The retirement of Andrew Johns also brought about a new era of mediocrity for the Newcastle club, but through it all they have remained one of the best supported clubs in the league. They’ve also produced a number of wonderful players, as you’ll read below.
Picking players across eras is never an exact science. An author can do all of the research in the world and still never be 100% sure about the selections put forward. Sure, there are some certainties for every team of this nature, but let this not end the debate; let it start one.
The main criteria is that each player has been selected on the strength of their performances for the club in question (not representative football and not for other clubs). They may have only been at the club for a short time, but if they’ve made The Best 17 Ever, it’s because of the undeniable quality that they produced during that time.
So let the debate begin!
1. Robbie O’Davis (1992-2004)
A career marred by performance-enhancing drugs, O’Davis was such a sublime talent that despite this controversy, he still earns a place in this side. Robbie O was the fullback for both of Newcastle’s premierships and was the Clive Churchill medallist in their first triumph, forming a lethal partnership with Andrew and Matthew Johns from the back.
2. Adam MacDougall (1997-2003 & 2007-2011)
MacDougall’s is another career with a black mark, due to a ban for the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 1998. Because it seems that the stimulants were used to recover from a head injury, his reputation was quickly restored and he went on to have a stellar career for the Knights across two different terms. Known for his dogged style and late footwork, MacDougall was a difficult man to tackle and crossed the stripe for 87 tries in Knights’ colours.
3. Matt Gidley (1996-2006)
From the year 2000 through to about 2004, Matt Gidley was considered the best centre on the planet. Not only was he a good defender and plenty capable of scoring tries, but his ability at right centre to get on the outside of his man, draw the opposition winger and throw the miracle ball to his winger occurred so frequently that it was no longer a miracle; it was a trademark. Gidley was an absolute pleasure to watch.
4. Timana Tahu (1999-2004 & 2012-2014)
Early in his career Tahu benefitted directly from the skills of Matt Gidley by playing on the right wing, before becoming a world-class centre himself. With his size and athleticism, Tahu crossed for 93 tries for the Knights and had the talent to produce plenty of tries for outside supports as well.
5. Darren Albert (1996-2001)
This was a tight call between Albert and Uate, and Uate can consider himself desperately unlucky. However, Albert simply can’t be denied. Anyone that saw this man in open pastures; that speed, that balance – would know that he deserves his spot. Possibly the fastest player to ever play for the Knights, Albert stopped a nation after running off an Andrew Johns offload to score the match-winning try on the siren in the 1997 Grand Final. What a moment; what a player!
6. Matthew Johns (1992-2000)
Matthew Johns is both lucky and unlucky to be the older brother of Joey. Unlucky in the sense he’ll always be the worst player of the two. But lucky because they formed one of the most formidable halves pairings of the modern era. It was as if they could read each other’s minds! Matthew’s skills as a five-eighth were also excellent, with a wonderful pass and a deft kick; he earns this spot very much of his own merits.
7. Andrew Johns (1993-2007)
Named at halfback in Australia’s Team of the Century immediately following his retirement and named an immortal 5 years later; I expect little argument for this selection.
8. Tony Butterfield (1988-2000)
A foundation player for the Knights; Butterfield was a no-frills front rower that worked hard to lay a platform for his talented playmakers. Boasting over 200 games for the club, Butterfield became somewhat of a club legend and went on to represent NSW once in 1998.
9. Danny Buderus (1997-2008 & 2012-2013)
Until Cameron Smith came along, Buderus was the undisputed best hooker of his era. In the mid-2000s it made for some tantalizing battles at State of Origin level. Buderus worked hard in defence, always gave crisp service to his first receiver and had enough pace around the ruck to be a genuine threat to defensive lines.
10. Paul Harragon (Captain) (1988-1999)
One of the friendliest blokes off the field but terrifying on it, Harragon didn’t know how to take a step backwards in a contest. A true leader; Harragon led the Knights to their emotional first premiership, a just reward for a man that gave his all for the red and blues for over a decade.
11. Steve Simpson (1999-2010)
As great as Simpson was for the Knights, I think we only saw a glimpse of how great he could have been had injuries not hampered much of the second half of his career. Despite his ongoing knee concerns, Simpson played over 200 games for his beloved Knights, establishing himself as a workhouse with a keen eye for a hole. He also played 12 Origins and 7 Tests for Australia.
12. Adam Muir (1992-1997)
Muir was a mainstay of the NSW team in the mid-90s and was known for his hard-nosed approach to the game and wonderful strength. He became somewhat of a journeyman after winning a competition with the Knights and injuries hampered his later career. He also played 2 games for Australia.
13. Ben Kennedy (2000-2004)
After establishing himself in Canberra, Kennedy moved to Newcastle and made an immediate impact on the club. People will remember that Andrew Johns received the Clive Churchill medal in 2001, but keen observers will recall that perhaps Kennedy was the best player on ground; taking on the more fancied Eels pack and devastating them to have the game more or less won by half-time. Kennedy is one of the best back-rowers of the modern era and slots in beautifully to this team.
14. Kurt Gidley (2001-2015)
Realistically, Gidley was a challenger for a couple of positions in this side but his versatility may have been a curse. No matter; one of Newcastle’s greatest servants would do a wonderful job from the bench to inject some pace in the back end of each half or to cover for any injury to a backline player. Gidley played 251 games for Newcastle, as well as 12 for NSW and 12 for Australia.
15. Sam Stewart (1988-1992)
When Sam Stewart came to the club he was already a well-established back-rower in his native New Zealand, having played for the Kiwis in a dozen Tests. He went on to become an integral part of establishing a winning culture at Newcastle, working hard for each metre gained or tackle made. The club’s inaugural captain would let no one down here.
16. Bill Peden (1994-2002)
Bill Peden from Cessnock epitomised everything that was great about the Knights during his career; he was a hard-working local player that gave everything he had to the club, winning two premierships and becoming a local legend himself.
17. Mark Sargent (1989-1995)
Mark Sargent would ensure that a backward step was never taken in this side, even if Butterfield or Harragon needed a rest. He came to the Knights in 1989, unable to get a regular spot at the Bulldogs, and immediately made an impact, sharing the Rothmans Medal with Gavin Miller that same season. Sargent would go on to represent NSW and Australia.
And that’s the team, not too bad, huh? How would they go against other teams named in this series? Do the men from up the M1 have what it takes to be the best ever 17?And who did we miss? Let us know in the comments below and stay tuned for the Best 17 Ever for all of the other clubs.
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