Mid-season recruit Jake Clifford is urging the Newcastle Knights faithful to “stay strong with us”.
The talented playmaker teamed up with his new NRL club just in time for the side’s round 13 clash with the Parramatta Eels at McDonald Jones Stadium at the weekend.
Unfortunately for the 23-year-old and his colleagues, they suffered a comprehensive 40-4 loss to the visitors on Old Boys Day of all occasions.
“It was a tough night out,” Clifford said.
“But, in saying that, I’m very grateful to debut [for Newcastle] on Old Boys Day and to play in front of 23,000 fans.
“It was still a very special moment for me.
“Moving ahead to this weekend, I’m sure we’ll do better than we did against Parramatta.
“Our supporters shouldn’t give up on us.
“We’ll get some troops back soon, like Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, Daniel Saifiti (from Origin) and David Klemmer (suspension).
“So, hopefully, we’ll string some wins together and have a run to the finals.
“I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
It’s been a whirlwind introduction to the Hunter Valley for Clifford.
One minute, he was taking the field for the North Queensland Cowboys, the next hopping on a flight to Newcastle.
A few days later, he ran onto the field for the Knights – with the club’s “elite” watching on in the stands.
“I didn’t feel any extra pressure, with it being Old Boys Day,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.
“I’ve been around big atmospheres before.
“Newcastle is a very historical club, which boasts a lot of legends.
“Everyone’s aware of what the Knights did in 2001 – and it’s great to see them celebrate that.
“I might not know the history behind everything.
“However, I could definitely witness the passion that the Old Boys brought and what it meant to previous players here.
“I was just keen to play some good footy for the Knights on my debut.
“I thought I handled the week pretty well.
“I went into the game confident we could do a job.
“Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen on the night.
“We’ll be better next time.
“I’ve only been here just over a week but I’m loving it.
“The club and playing group have really welcomed me in.
“It feels like I’ve been here the whole year.
“The fans, who’ve seen me on the streets, are really welcoming, too.”
Clifford’s arrival wasn’t a great surprise, given he’d already signed a two-year deal with the Knights for 2022.
But, the early switch after round 12 caught a few people off guard, including Ponga and Enari Tuala who he knew from their days together at the Cowboys.
“There was an opportunity that arose,” he said.
“North Queensland signed Tommy Dearden (from the Brisbane Broncos) to arrive there straight away.
“That paved the way for me to come here now.
“I thought it was a good idea.
“I’d always heard Newcastle was a lot like Townsville, but with better beaches.
“Getting to play alongside KP (Ponga) again was another attraction.
“Plus, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.
“I’ve been in Townsville my whole life.
“So, I think the change, and timing, was good – hopefully, in the long term, it will prove to be that way.
“I have no regrets about leaving.
“The emotion I showed [after the last Cowboys’ match] was because I’ve been attached to that club since I was a little boy.
“In fact, I was in the North Queensland system from the age of 12.
“However, this is my new home and I’m determined to put my best foot forward for the Knights.
“I’m excited to be here [in Newcastle].”
It doesn’t get any easier for Clifford, who’ll partner Phoenix Crossland in the halves, either as the Knights face the high-flying South Sydney Rabbitohs at Stadium Australia on Saturday 12 June.
“If we can work on our handling mistakes, we can put ourselves in the contest,” he said.
“We made too many simple errors and didn’t give ourselves a chance to apply any pressure on the Eels’ defence.
“I realise we’ve got some injuries at the moment but that shouldn’t affect our performances.
“There were a lot of individual mistakes that we just need to fix up.
“It’s not a technical aspect, more of a concentration thing.
“We have to get that right.
“Playing on the weekend was unreal with the team we had on the park.
“But, I’m keen to build combinations over the next couple of weeks.
“It doesn’t happen overnight.
“Putting on the [Knights] jersey this weekend will be another good test.”
With Clifford lining up at five-eighth, the versatile Kurt Mann moves to the centres, pushing Tuala to the wing.
Date: Saturday 12 June
Venue: Stadium Australia, Sydney
NSW Cup: 12.40pm
South Sydney Rabbitohs (coach Wayne Bennett): 1. Latrell Mitchell, 2. Alex Johnston. 3, Braidon Burns, 4. Campbell Graham, 5. Taane Milne, 6. Cody Walker, 7. Adam Reynolds (c), 8. Mark Nicholls, 9. Damien Cook, 10. Junior Tatola, 11. Keaon Koloamatangi, 12. Jacob Host, 13. Cameron Murray; interchange: 14. Benji Marshall, 15. Jaydn Su’A, 16. Hame Sele, 17. Thomas Burgess; extended bench: 18. Liam Knight, 19. Patrick Mago, 20. Blake Taaffe, 21. Josh Mansour, 22. Tautau Moga, 23. Peter Mamouzelos
Newcastle Knights (coach Adam O’Brien): 1. Tex Hoy, 2. Enari Tuala, 3. Kurt Mann, 4. Bradman Best, 5. Brayden Musgrove, 6. Jake Clifford, 7. Phoenix Crossland, 8. Jacob Saifiti, 9. Jayden Brailey (c), 10. Daniel Saifiti (c), 11. Brodie Jones, 12. Lachlan Fitzgibbon, 13. Mitch Barnett; interchange: 14. Connor Watson, 15. Sauaso Sue, 16. Josh King, 17. Jack Johns; extended Bench: 18. Gehamat Shibasaki, 19. Jirah Momoisea, 20. Mat Croker, 21. Dom Young