Eamonn Tiernan is the NRL Editor at foxsports.com.au and he writes Extra Time fortnightly.
Just after the Knights were spanked by the Storm 48-4 back in 2021, Craig Bellamy pulled aside his former apprentice Adam O’Brien.
“Don’t waver from your approach. You know what it looks like, stick to it.”
When it happened again the following season, this time a 50-2 drumming, Bellamy doubled down.
“You’re a good coach, the results will come.”
In fact, O’Brien lost the first five clashes against his mentor by an average of 26 points per game before a breakthrough win in Round 21 this season.
Now the coaches are on a finals collision course after O’Brien managed to sensationally resurrect Newcastle’s season.
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The Knights have charged into finals on a nine-game winning streak, but rewind just three months ago and club officials were sounding out options to replace O’Brien.
That was back in June when Newcastle’s season was stuttering, with the Knights slumped in 14th on the ladder with just five wins from 15 games.
It was also just two months after O’Brien’s mother, Maree, died of a brain tumour after being diagnosed before the start of the season.
In the weeks leading up to her death, O’Brien was juggling his coaching commitments and almost daily trips to Sydney to be at his mother’s hospital bedside.
Maree was a fierce supporter of her son, and a fanatic of whichever club O’Brien was coaching in the NRL, a journey that began at the Storm.
O’Brien started out with Melbourne’s under-20s side before working his way up to becoming Bellamy’s assistant for five years, which included a premiership in 2017.
Another title followed at the Roosters in 2019 before O’Brien was handed the reins at Newcastle the next year, a club which hadn’t played finals since Wayne Bennett was at the helm in 2013.
O’Brien – the coach who rose from rugby league obscurity into one of the game’s top jobs on the back of hard work – immediately showed faith in the staff around him.
Alex McKinnon was one of those, with O’Brien immediately backing the Knights player turned head of recruitment.
“One of the best traits of Adam is he’s able to empower his staff,” McKinnon told foxsports.com.au.
“He drives high standards but he empowers those around him and expects you to make good decisions.
“I remember when I started (under him), I was 28 years old and head of recruitment and he backed me on everything.
“(Assistants) Blake Green and Rory Kostjasyn, he backed them. Blake Green had never coached before but he empowered him.
“It’s a good trait that has allowed his own coaching to evolve. He’s taken the risk – coaching and football means so much to this guy and he doesn’t have the name. He’s not a Ricky Stuart, a Benji Marshall, a Cameron Ciraldo, he doesn’t have the name attached to it, this is his only shot.”
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Bellamy is notorious for being the first to arrive at Storm headquarters each morning and is often the last to leave – a trait O’Brien has replicated in Newcastle with the coach often in the building before 5am.
O’Brien will be the first to admit he’s made mistakes in his four seasons as a head coach and changes were required to achieve their current success.
Contrary to popular belief, it was Kalyn Ponga’s decision to move into the halves and did not come from the coach.
What was O’Brien’s call was the one to drop England international Dom Young in Round 4 after a poor performance against the Dolphins.
It lit a fire under the superstar winger and when Young returned to first-grade he scored 21 tries in 20 games to break Newcastle’s single-season record.
It’s been a historic season for the Knights who have just sold out a third game in a row this Sunday when they host their first final in 17 years.
BIG, BAD, BOLD BRONCOS
Matty Johns often recalls that when he played the legendary Broncos sides of the 1990s, they were so arrogant that even the water boy looked down on him.
But Brisbane premiership player Corey Parker says it’s an integral mindset of all successful sides – and he believes the current Broncos have adopted it.
“There was a period of time there where I thought the Broncos were showing too much respect to their opposition, which is why they were down (the ladder),” Parker told foxsports.com.au.
“But I don’t see that in Brisbane at the moment and what I mean by that is the good teams show disrespect at different stages.
“When I was playing for Brisbane with Gordie and Locky – and even in 2015 – at no stage in games did you ever feel like you were going to lose, and that’s swagger.
“Melbourne had that arrogance, Penrith have definitely got that arrogance, and you need it. When I’ve been part of successful sides I’ve found you’ve got to have an arrogance about you.
“A couple of years ago I watched the Panthers walk across Suncorp Stadium and Jarome Luai was holding a big speaker and they had a spring in their step and I thought to myself: ‘that’s a team that is going places.’
“That was just based on their swagger and their arrogance and they went on to win the next two comps and are looking down the barrel of three.
“But Brisbane are now definitely in that spot where they can unsaddle them.”
Before the Broncos get to the Panthers, they’ll need to end a losing streak against the Storm at Suncorp Stadium that dates back to 2009.
Brisbane have lost 14 straight games against Melbourne, but Parker doesn’t believe that will be a factor this Friday night.
“The actual guys playing haven’t really been a part of that (losing streak). The person who has been at the Broncos the longest is Corey Oates and he’s not playing this week,” Parker said.
“While there’s this external noise about Brisbane not beating them at Suncorp for 14 years, blah blah blah…. Adam Reynolds has been there for five minutes, same with Ezra Mam, Reece Walsh and Billy Walters… they haven’t endured it so I don’t think it’s a thing within the four walls.
“The team coming into this game on Friday is a completely different team… this team well and truly has what it takes to beat the Storm this Friday.”
RICKY’S RAIDERS READY TO AMBUSH
Raiders legend Mal Meninga is tipping a Ricky Stuart ambush in Newcastle on Sunday.
Canberra have got no Corey Horsburgh, no Josh Papalii, no Seb Kris and nobody giving them a chance.
But is that just the way Stuart likes it?
“Yep,” Meninga chuckled to foxsports.com.au.
Meninga and Stuart are considered two of the greatest Raiders players of all time and won three premierships at the club together.
The Green Machine’s most recent title came in Meninga’s final first-grade game way back in 1994, and most pundits have been writing them off ever since.
Canberra might not have won another premiership but they’ve been batting above their average ever since Stuart returned to coach in 2014.
They’ve made finals four of the past five years and stunned the Storm in Melbourne in an elimination final last season.
Now the Raiders are back on the road in the first week of finals and back at long odds, with Newcastle the raging favourites to win in front of a sellout crowd.
“Everybody will be thinking they’re no chance – except for the people in the organisation,” Meninga said.
“They’re underdogs but finals footy is a different ballgame. It’s all about who can handle the pressure and the Raiders have been there and done that, in recent times as well.
“My expectation is they’ll play really well and hopefully they will, but it’s not a week for hoping. It’s a week for getting your hands dirty and being willing to scrap and do everything you possibly can to help your teammates get the win.
“Talking about motivation – it’s finals. They made the eight when nine other teams didn’t and they’re not just there to make up the numbers, they’re there to compete and they will.”
It shapes as Jack Wighton and 18th Man Jarrod Croker’s final game for the Raiders, but Meninga said Stuart won’t have the focus on the club veterans.
“You start to get distracted if you’re looking for reasons to win,” Meninga said.
“I can tell you from my last game that it wasn’t about me, it was about everyone preparing to give everything they had to win that game – and we did.”