Having failed to get past week one of the finals for two seasons in a row, expectation was high in the Hunter about finally cracking the code and going deep into September.
However, after opening their 2022 campaign with two successive victories things quickly turned sour for Newcastle as they plummeted out of contention for the top eight and had to fend off rumours of a rotten culture on their journey down to 14th place on the ladder.
Adam O’Brien’s men looked toothless in attack after allowing veteran playmaker Mitchell Pearce to depart, while Kalyn Ponga never truly clicked into gear for any sustained period of time.
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Yet for all of their struggles with the ball in hand, they proved even more abject in defence. In fact, the 662 points they conceded across the season was less than only two other teams – the Warriors and Tigers – who anchored the bottom of the ladder.
It’s clear the coach identified a distinct lack of steel and fighting spirit within his roster, which is why he turned to Adam Elliott and Jack Hetherington as his headline recruits.
Both men will provide a spark in the middle, with the former Canterbury and Canberra backrower claiming the strength of Newcastle’s pack was a massive draw for him despite their poor run of form.
“I came here to join a really good forward pack,” Elliott told local media.
“I think the forward pack here is underrated. There is a lot of talent in it and I want to be there front and centre with the Saifiti boys [Jacob and Daniel] and Tyson Frizell ripping in each week.
“I’ll play in the middle and on the edge. I’m not too fussed.
“Maybe at the start of games, I might find myself in the middle in amongst the action and then depending on injuries or rotation, it’s always good to slip out to the edge and save an interchange.”
Elliott’s brief stint at the Raiders showcased his versatility when he was fashioned into a makeshift No.9 by Ricky Stuart.
Although it is not a role he sees himself occupying long-term, with his sights firmly set instead on holding down a spot in the forwards.
“I asked Ads if he had a few hookers and he said he did, so that was a good reason for me wanting to come here as well,” he laughed.
“The Gary Jack [back] was getting a bit sore bending down to pick up the ball playing at dummy-half.”
Elliott’s in the house 🙌
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) November 14, 2022
Elliott enjoyed a surge of form late in the season for Canberra but unfortunately this abruptly came to an end when he picked up an injury in the finals.
It has slightly delayed his start to the pre-season with the Knights, but may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise.
“I had a pretty serious injury against Melbourne in the semi-final last year…which ruled me out of the second semi-final against Parramatta,” Elliott said.
“The off-season has just been about trying to rest and recover and trying to let my pelvis mend. I did a fair bit of damage down there.
“I had an off-season, probably the first one I’ve had in my career, where I just relaxed.
“Usually, I can’t sit still for a day- I’m in the gym, going for a run or doing something. So, it was a little bit different and I had to be really patient.”
Another by-product of Elliott’s injury and Canberra’s exit from the finals was he got to witness first-hand the adulation his partner Millie Boyle enjoyed when she captained Newcastle’s NRLW side to their maiden premiership.
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“We got knocked out a couple of weeks before her run, so it was great to be there every step of the way with her,” he said.
“It wasn’t just grand final day. It was the weeks before when I’d come up to visit her on my day off.
“People would be stopping her in the street and saying how proud they are of the girls and how they’re going and that they’ll be at the game and be bringing their kids. It was so cool to see the town getting behind them.
“I’d signed at that point too, so it was a bit like when I get here, I’m going to have to roll my sleeves up and have a go because I want that to happen to me.
“Everyone wants to perform, and this is a town you want to perform for. You want them to be proud of you.”