'Hard to ignore': Knights stuck together to save coach

Speculation about Adam O'Brien's future as coach was impossible for Newcastle to ignore but it has helped the Knights galvanise on a charmed run to the finals.

When Newcastle sat 14th on the ladder through 17 rounds, O'Brien conceded his job would be the firing line if they failed to turn things around.

The Knights had finished only one of his three previous seasons with a winning record and had not made it past the first week of the finals in any.

The 2022 campaign ended in a dismal 14th-placed finish and with only five wins to their name in late June, 2023 appeared at risk of going a similar way.

But just six days after O'Brien's comments, Newcastle belted Canterbury 66-0 for their biggest win in club history and have won all eight games since.

Their winning ways did not immediately stop speculation as to O'Brien's tenure.

The rumour mill chugged into full swing after a club official met with recently-ousted Gold Coast coach Justin Holbrook behind O'Brien's back.

"It was definitely tough, not only for us players but for Adam and his coaching staff," Knights veteran Lachlan Fitzgibbon told AAP of the speculation.

"It's hard to ignore, when that type of media pressure is in the papers. Newcastle's a small town, there's a lot of talk around the town and on the TV.

"It's a bit of the elephant in the room, but we knew we needed to stick solid."

And stick solid they did.

O'Brien had insisted all year the Knights could push the NRL's best, pointing to close losses against eventual top-two sides Penrith and Brisbane. 

The hard times never prompted the coach and his staff to rethink their approach.

"They haven't changed from what they believed in, what they instilled in us during the pre-season," Fitzgibbon said.

"When it did get tough, they didn't go looking for answers that weren't there. 

"We couldn't look too far in to what everyone was saying externally about us. 

"We just had to knuckle down, be ourselves and try to put that at the back of our minds and win footy games."

Now, O'Brien and the Knights are the form team of the NRL, only days away from facing Canberra in a home final that looked out of reach two months ago.

The last time Newcastle hosted a finals game, the year was 2006 and Fitzgibbon was a 12-year-old supporter on the hill.

"I was a Newcastle fan before I was a player. I went to every home game," he said.

"I'll definitely remember this one. I'm looking forward to it, it's obviously been a long time for the town of Newcastle and I can feel everyone's around us."

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