Adam O’Brien says Newcastle with be “putting an arm around” Jake Clifford after the out-of-form five-eighth was axed following the Knights’ 50-2 loss to Melbourne.
Clifford headlines a list of changes for Saturday’s clash against the red-hot Cowboys, with O’Brien clearly out of patience with his side after six successive losses – a situation that leaves the Knights in last position on the ladder after eight rounds.
Clifford was brutally pulled from the field in the second half of Sunday’s loss after a nightmare performance that began with a kick-off that sailed out on the full and progressively got worse from there.
O’Brien has given the playmaker a week off, naming Tex Hoy in the No. 6 and Phoenix Crossland to partner him in the halves, with Adam Clune battling a knee and wrist injury.
The Knights coach admitted on Tuesday Clifford was “down” after his benching on Sunday but insisted the club will do whatever it can to support him through this tough period.
“Sometimes you can let guys work their way through … I think given the position he plays in the team it was a little bit like quicksand for him and it was getting worse,” O’Brien said on Tuesday before naming his team to face the Cowboys.
“He’s just got some challenges around his preparation, mentally for the game and he’s pretty down.
“Coaching is knowing when to protect them and that’s my job now, to make sure that we’re putting an arm around him.
“He’s in a difficult spot but he’ll come out the other side – he’s an integral part of the team.
“We’ve still got 16 games to go so we need our halves playing well and it’s my job to help him.”
Newcastle’s commitment was questioned heavily in the wake of the performance in front of a packed home crowd against Melbourne.
O’Brien conceded his side’s morale has reached new lows but denied there was an attitude problem within his squad.
“They care, they’re embarrassed,” he declared.
“I can understand (fans) witnessing some of the vision they saw walking away from the stadium thinking (the players) don’t care. They clearly do.
“Internally we’ll have honest conversations, we’ll never shy away from that. There’s standards there we can’t walk past, we can’t accept. But externally we’re going to stick together, we’re a united front.
“This team in there are going to fight.”
Newcastle’s dire run of six losses has been compounded by a horror injury toll, but the Knights are expected to be boosted by the return of a handful of players from the sidelines this week.
As well as the changes to his halves, O’Brien has named Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Dominic Young to return from injury. Tyson Frizell has also been named despite being bed-ridden with illness, with O’Brien confident the Test back-rower will be fit to take on North Queensland.
“We’re a little bit banged up… the physios are working overtime to try and get a few guys up,” O’Brien said of the injury situation.
“We’ve got a week to get through, it’s not great at the moment, but we’ll get on with it.”
O’Brien also threw his support behind Kalyn Ponga, whose leadership has come under fire in the midst of the side’s agonising stretch of losses.
O’Brien admitted Ponga was new to the role and learning along the way but backed 24-year-old’s efforts.
“Leadership is an ongoing thing that needs to be practised, just like your passing and kicking,” O’Brien said.
“He’s a young captain and it’s new to him and he’s missing a pretty good co-pilot there in Jayden.
“In terms of his leadership in the game, I thought he put in a ton of effort.
“He and Enari (Tuala) tried their guts out and that’s a form of leadership too.”