Former and future coach: Newcastle mentor Rick Stone. Photo: Darren PatemanWayne Bennett reckons it will take ‘‘four or five years’’ to rebuild the Knights. Rick Stone cannot afford to wait that long.
Newcastle confirmed on Monday that Stone, who Bennett succeeded three years ago as part of Nathan Tinkler’s takeover, will succeed the Brisbane-bound mentor as the Knights’ coach for the next two seasons.
The announcement ended weeks of speculation since Bennett said on July 10 that he would not be returning to coach the Knights for a fourth season next year, though Stone was always among the favourites to replace him and firmed to odds-on when Garth Brennan withdrew from the race.
Two weeks earlier, when he was still undecided about his future, Bennett emerged from a planning meeting with Knights chief executive Matt Gidley and club adviser John Quayle and suggested transforming Newcastle into a super-power would require more than a ‘‘quick fix’’.
‘‘It’s going to take four or five years, I’ve got no doubt about that at all, to get it up to speed and where they want to take it, and they want to do it with a new board and a new direction – all those things that are important,’’ Bennett said. Stone is understandably more bullish about the Knights’ shorter-term future.
Sitting alongside Gidley at a news conference at the club’s Mayfield headquarters on Monday to announce the second coming of the Stone age, the 47-year-old father of three sons was asked if Bennett’s prediction of a five-year plan was too pessimistic. ‘‘I’d like to think so,’’ Stone said. ‘‘I’ve only got two, so I’ve got to get busy and see if we can make some inroads in the next two, which would be really important. I’m confident we can do it, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.’’
An assistant coach to Michael Hagan in 2006 and Brian Smith from 2007, Stone succeeded Smith with four rounds left in 2009 and coached the Knights in 54 NRL games until he stepped aside at the end of 2011 to make way for Bennett. The Lakes United product and former carpenter continued at the Knights as an assistant to Bennett and has been Newcastle’s NSW Cup coach for the past two seasons, taking the club’s second-tier squad within a game of last year’s grand final and back to the finals this season.
Stone coached the Knights to the 2009 and 2011 NRL finals in his first stint and, given the strength of the squad he will have at his disposal, believes that is an attainable goal next season. ‘‘Initially, you need to get yourself into the top eight obviously, and I think we’ve got a roster that’s capable of doing that, and I’m sure Wayne would be the first to admit there’s still a roster here that’s capable of doing that,’’ he said. ‘‘I think Penrith are a great example of making some decent recruitment decisions and working hard as a group – not a flashy playing staff – but they have really got themselves in a good position this year, and we could possibly model ourselves on something like that.
‘‘At different times this year, we have let ourselves down and we haven’t played as well as we need to. We need to get some consistency back. It’s funny, because when I finished the job [in 2011], we were just starting to get some consistency, and it took a couple of years to get there. We’ve seen the same sort of thing probably rear its head in the last couple of years where the consistency hasn’t been good enough. It hasn’t been good enough for NRL standard, we got some at the back end of last year when we made a run for the semi-finals, but apart from then, it’s fair to say that we need to improve with that.’’
Gidley said the Newcastle players welcomed news of Stone’s appointment when told.
‘‘It’s clear we went through a thorough process. Rick was always going to be a very strong candidate for the job, but given how important the role is, we felt we needed to go through a thorough process before we came to this position,’’ Gidley said.
‘‘Last week we arrived at the position of Rick to be our head coach, and we’re very pleased to be able to announce that today.
‘‘One of the keys is Rick has been a part of this group for the last three years, and he’s been in a senior coaching role at our club since 2006, so he understands the type of club we are and the type of club we can be, so that’s really important.’’
Gidley said the club’s selection sub-committee of himself, Quayle and chairman Paul Harragon seriously considered the claims of six other candidates but Stone was a stand-out.
‘‘I think one of the really encouraging things to come out of the process was the calibre of coaches that were attracted to come to Newcastle,’’ Gidley said.
‘‘I was really pleased by that. Rick was always a strong contender but there was a number of other coaches that we carefully considered before we decided upon giving Rick the job.’’
Stone dismissed any suggestion he had been promised a second chance by Tinkler or Knights management as part of a gentlemen’s agreement or otherwise, saying ‘‘I don’t think there’s any real guarantees in the game of rugby league in this day and age’’.
‘‘You don’t get many chances to come back and coach at the same NRL club as head coach, so it’s a unique situation for myself,’’ Stone said.
‘‘I’d like to think I’ve been pretty patient over those three years, and learnt a lot, and understand a little bit about Newcastle from the juniors right through to the top grade, and I’m really excited about our future.’’
Stone, who steered Fiji to the World Cup semi-finals last year, believed he was inheriting a stronger roster than the one he took to the 2011 finals, and that he would be a better NRL coach second time around after three years working with Bennett.
‘‘I think you mature. Every year you’re involved in coaching, you mature and you learn a little bit more from the experiences you take out of it,’’ he said.
‘‘[I] learned plenty from Wayne. He handles things really professionally. He’s an experienced campaigner, he’s been around, he knows how to coach in big games and I learned plenty out of the semi-final series we played last year …
‘‘The last three years has been a great learning experience.’’
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