August 12, 2023

Battles of Hastings: How shunned half became Knight in shining armour

By Christian Nicolussi
August 12, 2023 — 3.48pm
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And to think, after all this time, the only thing Jackson Hastings needed was a bit of love. And the right environment.

According to those up Newcastle way, there is no great secret to getting the best out of the much-maligned and much-misunderstood Hastings.

“Jackson has found a playing group and community that brings the best out of him,” Knights coach Adam O’Brien says. “They believe in him and, in return, he’s enabled everyone else to be best they can be.

“We needed that, and he’s delivered.”

Hastings will be the one with the No.7 on his back and the focus of much of the attention when the Knights chase a sixth straight win against Canterbury on Sunday afternoon.

For all the hype about superstar Kalyn Ponga, Hastings has been the unsung hero and the player who has run the show, allowing “KP” to be KP.

There was no shortage of Knights fans who were worried when Hastings signed at the end of last year. He had form – good and bad.

Things ended badly at the Sydney Roosters, and likewise Manly, before it all went pear-shaped at Wests Tigers. In between, however, he won a Man of Steel award as player of the year after taking Super League battlers Salford to the 2019 grand final. He backed that up with a stellar season as Wigan reached the big dance the following year.

Jackson Hastings has found a new home at the Knights, and something is brewing in Newcastle.Credit: NRL Photos


Now 27, Hastings has matured and maybe finally found a place to settle down.

When he first met with the Knights, Hastings admitted things had not gone smoothly elsewhere. As he chewed on a steak at Wests Leagues Club with Knights football manager Peter Parr, Hastings said he wanted to better himself and the team.

Parr liked what he heard. He was happy to back himself when it came to managing big personalities. Parr had plenty of practice keeping Johnathan Thurston in line during the early years at North Queensland.

Knights insiders will tell you Hastings was always going to struggle at the Sea Eagles under Trent Barrett, who at the time was still learning what head coaching was all about and was under a lot of pressure on the northern beaches.

His time at the Tigers started well, but things turned sour when his good friend and coach Michael Maguire was sacked. Hastings followed shortly after. History will show the problems at the Tigers – who are set to collect their second straight wooden spoon – were elsewhere.

While Hastings has been making a home for himself in Newcastle, the Tigers had to go to the north of England to recruit 32-year-old Aidan Sezer for next year.

Hastings is never far from the action – good and bad.Credit: NRL Photos

Maguire loved Hastings’ competitiveness and, like the Knights, was well aware of his chequered past. But he knew a little faith would go a long way.

“I wouldn’t say he needs love; Jackson simply needs people believing in him,” Maguire says. “I certainly believed in Jacko. The best thing about him is he’s a competitor; he thrives on winning and drives those around him to achieve the same success.”

So, what has Hastings brought to a Knights team that won only six games and finished third last in 2022? A team that was battling away in 14th after 18 rounds as rumours swirled about the future of coach O’Brien.

Knights attack coach Blake Green says Hastings has embraced the game plan. The Knights like to use a lot of short passes with a lot of support players through the middle.

“Some teams are fortunate enough to sling the ball to their strike players and let them beat people individually,” Green said. “But if you watch us play, there’s a fair bit of coordination going on, and Jackson is a massive part of that.

Hastings had some big moments at Wests Tigers but it ended bady . . . again.Credit: NRL Photos

“People like Jackson and Adam Elliott have been able to create a lot of space for Bradman and ‘Gags’ [Dane Gagai] and KP.

“He’s allowed KP to do his thing and pop up when he’s needed. People have assumed the more footy KP plays, the more he will become that dominant voice. But that’s not his style; putting the pieces of the puzzle into the right spot is not his strength. Jackson does that for him.”

Elliott, who has known Hastings since he was 11 when playing with and against each other on the NSW South Coast, says Hastings “is the most full-on and intense halfback I’ve played with”.

“He’s someone who doesn’t shirk responsibility; he storms through the door and wants to grab the game plan by the throat – he’s a footy nerd who watches tape 24/7,” Elliott says.

“Nothing has changed with Jacko the past five weeks. He’s been on for us all year. The coach put a lot into our game style. It was just a case of the rest of us taking longer to adjust to the game style than Jacko did. Once you give him a game plan, he’ll execute it to a tee.”

Jackson Hastings and Daly Cherry-Evans at Brookvale before the rift that split the club in 2018.Credit: NRL Photos

Hastings does not keep quiet. Hooker Phoenix Crossland admits he has often switched off when Hastings starts talking. “But if you ever come in flat, he’s the one to get everyone going,” he says.

The Knights started their run against the Bulldogs with a thumping 66-0 win in round 18. The only consolation for Canterbury fans that Sunday afternoon was knowing the Tigers had given up 74 points in Townsville the night before.


The Knights took a lot of confidence out of the golden-point loss to the Panthers earlier in the season, and led Brisbane in round 15 before capitulating late. Those tight finishes gave them and Hastings belief that they should keep persisting with what they were doing.

That belief came to fruition when they beat the Storm in front of 20,000 fans on a heavy Saturday night at home. That win made everyone sit up and take notice.

Who knows how far the Knights will go. Right now, every club will be doing well to stop a Penrith and Brisbane grand final.

During a visit to John Hunter Hospital before Christmas, Hastings told this masthead about his disappointment at the way things had ended at the Tigers. He loved Maguire, but talk of being turned into a lock had little appeal.

“I wanted to be there, I wanted to win there, I wanted to be a part of that next wave that helped the Tigers play finals footy,” he said.

Hastings is now helping the next wave in Newcastle.

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Christian Nicolussi covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter or email.


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