IT has taken them a year to get there but the Newcastle Knights are at last looking like a Wayne Bennett-coached team.
After a frustrating, anti-climactic 2012 campaign that started with a golden-point loss to St George Illawarra and ended with Newcastle a lowly 12th on the ladder, the Knights kicked off this season of redemption in emphatic fashion on Monday night.
The Wests Tigers, admittedly, were awful and there will be far tougher tests for Newcastle in the six months ahead – starting with Manly at Brookvale on Sunday.
But their 42-10 win at Hunter Stadium can only have reassured Bennett, his players, and the 21,935-strong crowd that the Knights are heading in the right direction and capable of doing some serious damage this year.
There were some nervous moments for the home team in the early exchanges.
After playmaker Jarrod Mullen skewed his first clearing kick of the year out on the full, the Tigers opened the scoring in the sixth minute when forward Adam Blair crashed through some flimsy defence.
For a few minutes, there was enough deja vu in the air for the Novocastrian faithful to lose their voice. But tries by wingers James McManus and Akuila Uate had Newcastle in front after 22 minutes and from that point the Tigers rarely threatened.
If the presence of strategically recruited enforcers Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith gave the Knights a menacing edge and sense of confidence, it was the survivors from last year’s annus horribilis who appeared to revel in a clean slate.
Uate celebrated the four-year deal he signed last week with a hat-trick, while McManus bagged a double, as did young centre Dane Gagai.
Fullback Darius Boyd was a class act from kick-off to full-time, troubling the Tigers every time he touched the ball and producing a bone-rattling try-saver on his opposite number, Tim Moltzen.
Mullen and skipper Kurt Gidley were generally creative and composed, no doubt enjoying directing traffic behind a dominant pack.
Up front, Willie Mason and Kade Snowden lumbered forward with power and intent, while workhorse Chris Houston toiled away in trademark style.
Hooker Travis Waddell, expecting to play the season with Souths Logan in the Queensland Cup, made the most of his opportunity in the absence of the injured Danny Buderus and Matt Hilder.
Bench players – Neville Costigan, Alex McKinnon, Robbie Rochow and Tyrone Roberts – all provided impact and spark when they entered the fray.
The positives for the Tigers, in contrast, were few and far between. Under debutant coach Mick Potter, the eternally enigmatic Wests were regarded in the pre-season as an unknown quantity.
Last year they finished 10th, a performance so disappointing it cost Tim Sheens his job.
On Mondaynight’s display, as Tigers skipper Robbie Farah admitted afterwards, ‘‘we need to turn things around quick or otherwise it’s going to be a long year for us’’.
The match was only round one of 24, and come the business end of the season will have been forgotten by most. Bennett, who has been involved in 26 season-openers since he launched the Brisbane Broncos in 1988, was not getting carried away.
When it was pointed out Newcastle were on top of the points table, he deadpanned: ‘‘Wow’’, with perhaps the hint of a smirk.
‘‘I know this much,’’ he said. ‘‘What starts off in March doesn’t really equate to what’s going to finish up in September.
‘‘I’ve seen teams go off on day one looking like how are you going to beat them and by the end of the season they haven’t even made the eight.
‘‘So there’s a lot out there in front of us yet, for all of us that may have had wins.’’
Maybe so, but they say you get only one chance to leave a first impression. Compared to last season, last night’s was a dramatic improvement.
TAKE THAT: Knights enforcer Beau Scott comes in for some attention from the Tigers players during their NRL opener last night. Picture: Peter Stoop