‘Maybe we would have had a different season’: O’Brien opens up on key issues at Newcastle

Adam O’Brien has opened up on how the failure to adequately replace Mitchell Pearce in the halves, coupled with a disrupted pre-season, led to Newcastle enduring a disastrous campaign.

The under-pressure coach confirmed the club’s previous interest in Luke Brooks, while revealing how their inability to capture the halfback may have been due to the Wests Tigers having a change of heart. 

Newcastle failed in their attempt to lure Luke Brooks to the club

“Had we landed him then maybe we would have had a different season,” O’Brien said, while appearing on Toohey’s News podcast.

MORE: Newcastle Knights season review | Halfback power rankings 1-16

Pearce, formerly the side’s chief playmaker, requested to leave the club during a tumultuous pre-season.

O’Brien decided to allow the halfback to join Super League outfit Catalans, but then regretted it after Jayden Brailey suffered a serious injury.

“Losing your No.7 and No.9- they’re the guys who probably handle the ball the most and direct the team around, so that really hurt,” he said.

However, O’Brien believed he made the correct choice in the long-term for both Newcastle and Pearce.

“If you have a guy sit in front of you who has had a pretty tough season and looked jaded- he wasn’t sure if he could physically get through another season,” the coach said. 

“He looked to need a change and he expressed that to me. I think he earned the right to express his honest opinion on where he thought he was at physically and mentally.”

The Knights eventually released Pearce, while believing they’d be able to bring Brooks to the Hunter. It was a move that failed to materialise though, which left Newcastle in the lurch.  

“There was noise around Luke wanting to join the club, but the Tigers took a different road and wanted to keep Luke there,” O’Brien said.

“It’s totally their prerogative. He has a contract there.”

The Knights endured a difficult pre-season

The releasing of the Knights’ No.7 was then compounded by a pre-season that was unlike any other O’Brien had navigated. He identified how his side’s lack of work on the training paddock had worried him, as they would be unprepared for the tough slog of the season ahead. 

“We didn’t have a great summer,” he admitted.

“I wasn’t overly content with the amount of work we got done. We had an interrupted summer, and when you’re under pressure I think you sink to the level of your training.”

The Knights began the season in impressive fashion, picking up an opening round victory over the Sydney Roosters while also knocking off the Wests Tigers.

Yet this perhaps gave the playing group false confidence, with O’Brien claiming the club may have gotten ahead of themselves with the positive results early on.

“The start of the season we were really pleased with, but did we handle winning that well? Hindsight would suggest not,” the coach said.

MORE: Assessing Kalyn Ponga’s 2022 campaign at the Knights

In December last year, Newcastle was struck down by a Covid outbreak amongst the squad. Faced with the prospect of continuing on around Christmas time, O’Brien decided to postpone the pre-season.

“Our Covid outbreaks- the first player was on the 16th December. We were scheduled to finish on the 22nd, but on reflecting I was really concerned about the fathers in the group,” he said.

“I didn’t want them to wake up on Christmas day and be stuck in a room on their own, so we made the decision as a club to halt training.”

Although, upon their return, the Knights were once again disrupted by Covid.

“I think we had five weeks that we missed in total,” O’Brien said.

“We had to cancel- we had an army camp organised. It was postponed and then cancelled due to restrictions travelling to Queensland.

“We put on a summer camp, which was for three weeks- I think we lasted ten days.”

Has Adam O’Brien lost the players in the Knights’ dressing room?

“I haven’t lost any confidence in my ability, but I’m certainly not happy with my performance this year either,” O’Brien said, while discussing about the dynamics of the club’s inner sanctum. 

“I don’t just lump this on the playing group though, we’re all in it together.”

As Newcastle’s season lurched from one disaster to the next, a narrative began to form around O’Brien’s potentially negative relationship with his players.

When losing becomes a habit, the stories emanating from the dressing room usually resolves around the player’s unhappiness with their coach. 

MORE: Newcastle’s culture questioned after Kalyn Ponga and Kurt Mann controversy

“Individuals aren’t going to be happy every day, because I’m going to be giving them feedback that won’t make them happy,” he argued. 

“I’m quite open and honest about where they’re at. So, not everybody is going to be thrilled every single day, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not invested.”

O’Brien credited the recent season review, which was conducted internally, for bringing the players and the coaching staff closer together. He highlighted how it enabled the players to express their views on how best to take the club forward. 

“They can feel free to disagree with me and we can have an open debate,” the coach said. 

“They know my door is never closed and if they are disgruntled about something they can talk to me. 

“We got some feedback on what the playing personnel think we can do better.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien shared where he thought each individual stood heading into 2023.

“We were honest. We don’t have to brutalise a player, but certainly a few were a bit more stern. There were a few kicks up the backside and some pats on the back along the way.”

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