Second chances with the same team don’t come around too often in the ruthless world of coaching in professional sport.


That’s why Rick Stone is counting his blessings this NRL season as he takes the helm of the Newcastle Knights for the first time since stepping back to make room for Wayne Bennett’s arrival in 2012.

With Bennett back in Brisbane, Stone has now stepped out of the supercoach’s shadow and has two years to turn the Knights – underachievers last year – into an NRL premiership threat.

The pre-season has been more about evolution for Newcastle, with a largely settled playing squad and a coach who knows the place inside out.

But Stone is putting his own stamp on the team with a somewhat different approach.

“I’m first to admit I don’t want to be a clone of Wayne,” Stone said.

“I think every coach needs to coach in their own style.

“One of the main things I’ve tried to do is make sure we create a comfortable, non-confrontational environment in which the players can learn.

“We’re trying to be a little bit more open so they feel like they can speak up a little bit more.

“There’s been a few changes within the club, in the structure and the administration side of things since I was in the job last time.

“Everything’s in a good position as far as I’m concerned.”

As he loosens some of the tactical shackles of the Bennett days, Stone is equally pleased with his own work in the player market, despite the loss of Willie Mason.

Tariq Sims is the marquee signing, and although he won’t play until round six due to a five-week carryover suspension, he will add some much-needed steel to the back row.

Then there’s Jack Stockwell and Carlos Tuimavave, who will add depth to the pack and give Stone the options he needs to fulfill his plans for a return to finals football.

From his perspective, the Knights have never been better placed to make it happen.

“We believe we can make the eight, we’re confident we can do that,” he said.

“One thing that’s really important is we’ve learned from the past.

“Defensively we were down in most stats last year.

“That’s been a big focus of ours – not anywhere in particular, but right across the board.

“The proof will be when we start playing.”

Key to Newcastle’s fortunes will be the resolution of a handful of distractions that loom in the not-too-distant future – particularly on the back of a season coloured by ownership dramas and the shattering injury to Alex McKinnon.

First there’s the Mata’utia brothers, who have until June 30 to decide if they wish to move to the Canterbury in 2016 or reneg and stay put at the Knights.

Then there’s Dane Gagai, who has already spoken with Bennett about following him to the Broncos next year.

On both fronts, Stone is bullish.

“Obviously Dane’s a quality player and we want to keep him in Newcastle,” he said.

“Admittedly Wayne’s brought him down here and helped him establish his career as an NRL player.

“We’re going to make him a substantial offer.”

“He’s having a little bit of a management disagreement at the moment he’s got to sort out, but once he’s done that, hopefully before the season starts, we’ll have an idea of where Dane’s going to be.”


Premierships: 2 – 1997, 2001

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2014 – 12th, 2013 – preliminary finalists, 2012 – 12th

Coach: Rick Stone

Captain: Kurt Gidley

Gains: Tariq Sims (Cowboys), Jack Stockwell (Dragons), Carlos Tuimavave (Warriors)

Losses: Darius Boyd (Broncos), Adam Cuthbertson (Leeds Rhinos), Michael Dobson (Salford), Matt Hilder (retired), Josh Mantellato (Hull KR), Willie Mason (Sea Eagles), Matt Minto (Qld Cup), Chance Peni (Tigers), Timana Tahu (retired), Travis Waddell (Broncos), Brayden Wiliame (Sea Eagles)

Strength: The Knights have a blistering backline featuring some of the most exciting players in the NRL.

Weakness: The loss of Willie Mason leaves the pack looking a little light on muscle. Kade Snowden will need to step up and show consistency.

Money Man: Tyrone Roberts looked sensational in the Indigenous All Stars match and appears ready to take his game to a new level in 2015.

One to watch: All eyes will be on Sione Mata’utia to see if he can back up his dramatic rise in 2014 which led to him becoming Australia’s youngest-ever Test player.

Best team: Kurt Gidley, Akuila Uate, Sione Mata’utia, Dane Gagai, James McManus, Ben Roberts Jarrod Mullen, Kade Snowden, Adam Clydsdale, Korbin Sims, Beau Scott, Robbie Rochow, Jeremy Smith. Interchange: Chris Houston, David Fa’alogo, Jack Stockwell, Joey Leilua.

Predicted finish: 13th

Betting: $41