Newcastle may have endured the season from hell but incoming coach Rick Stone says the last three weeks have convinced him there are brighter days on the horizon.
The club on Monday announced Stone would replace Brisbane-bound Wayne Bennett at season’s end on a two-year NRL contract.
Newcastle, currently in 14th, have endured a series of off-field dramas in 2014 which have derailed the campaign of last season’s preliminary finalists.
Their annus horribilis began with the jailing of Russell Packer and reached a low point with a serious neck injury suffered by Alex McKinnon in round three.
They have also had to contend with the exit of owner Nathan Tinkler, Bennett quitting with a year remaining on his contract and marquee player Darius Boyd taking indefinite leave to seek treatment for depression.
Stone said their were shoots of green beginning to show, such as the NRL debuts of local juniors Sione and Chanel Mata’utia and memorable wins over title contenders Sydney Roosters and Melbourne over the last three rounds.
“It’s been documented we haven’t had a lot of luck this year, starting with Alex and a few different things haven’t gone our way,” Stone said.
“The last few home games have showed there is plenty of fight in the team and there’s plenty of talent in the team, we’ve debuted a couple of young blokes the last few weeks. There are a few more who are getting closer to NRL debuts.
“Times are good for us. In the Knights’ history, whenever we’ve done well, we’ve had a good influx of local kids playing in our teams.”
It will be Stone’s second coming at the club having served as head coach from 2009 to 2011.
After taking over following Brian Smith’s sacking, he had two years and a half years in the top job, before stepping down to serve as Bennett’s assistant for the last three seasons.
There had been calls for the club to sack Bennett so the Knights could begin rebuilding.
Stone said he was well placed to see out the year as the club’s NSW Cup coach and take the reins to start planning for next season.
He said the club would pay particular attention to their front-row stocks.
Stone was widely tipped to earn the top job after Penrith assistant Garth Brennan dropped out of the race two weeks ago and CEO Matt Gidley said the club considered six candidates for the position.
Stone, 47, joined Newcastle in 2006 as an assistant to Michael Hagan and has also served as the coach of rugby league minnows Fiji at last year’s World Cup.
He said he had grown as a coach the last few years and was confident he was ready to return to the head coaching ranks.
The Knights have several senior players off-contact in 2015 in Willie Mason, David Fa’alogo and Chris Houston.
Gidley said Stone had the respect of the playing group and his presence would be key in attracting and re-signing talent.
“I think one of the keys is Rick has been a part of this group for the last three years,” Gidley said.
“He’s been involved as a senior coach at this club since 2006. He understands the kind of club we are and the type of club we can be.
“In terms of our roster, it’s relatively settled next year. I haven’t had any players come and ask to leave. It’s clear from the way the team is playing that they’re all happy enough.”