As the National Rugby League season draws closer, we look at how the Newcastle Knights will go in 2018.
The Knights head into 2018 coming off three consecutive wooden spoons; new ownership and a massive player overhaul has fans optimistic about this season.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Kalyn Ponga (North Queensland Cowboys), Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Sydney Roosters – midseason 2017), Tautau Moga (Brisbane Broncos), Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters), Mitchell Pearce (Sydney Roosters), Jacob Lillyman (New Zealand Warriors), Slade Griffin (Melbourne Storm), Herman Ese’ese (Brisbane Broncos), Aidan Guerra (Sydney Roosters), Chris Heighington (Cronulla Sharks), Brent Naden (Canberra Raiders), Christian Hazard (Redcliffe Dolphins).
Dane Gagai (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Brendan Elliot (Gold Coast Titans), Chanel Mata’utia (released), Peter Mata’utia (Leigh Centurions), Jacob Gagan (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jaelen Feeney (Townsville Blackhawks), Trent Hodkinson (Cronulla Sharks), Micky Paea (Hull FC), Rory Kostjasyn (retired), Jack Stockwell (Gold Coast Titans), Anthony Tupou (retired), Joe Wardle (Castleford Tigers), Pauli Pauli (released), Josh Starling (Oberon Tigers), Sam Mataora (retired), David Bhana (released), Tyler Randell (Wakefield Trinity).
Sea Eagles (H), Raiders (A), Roosters (A), Dragons (A), Broncos (H).
WHAT TO EXPECT
Not since Nathan Tinkler brought Wayne Bennett to the Hunter has there been such excitement surrounding Newcastle, the calibre of players they’ve recruited has transformed them into finals contenders. Expect Newcastle to play an attractive brand of football thanks to Pearce, Watson and Ponga forming a new look spine for the Knights. Nathan Brown beefed up his pack in the off-season, allowing him to rotate his engine room, with Ese’ese and Lillyman sharing stints with the Saifiti twins. Newcastle will also be dangerous on the edges with the addition of Moga and Sione Mata’utia’s return to the centres. Brown has two good hole runners with Guerra and Lachlan Fitzgibbon running off Pearce. Newcastle are dangerous all over the park and a 2018 finals spot is possible.
Pearce is the key man for the Knights. The former Roosters halfback – included in Nathan Brown’s leadership group – never expected to play for anyone else before being pushed out for Cooper Cronk. By all reports he’s loving Newcastle. If the Knights get the best out of him, he can steer them into the finals for the first time since 2013.
Newcastle were active in the 2017 player market, signing Ponga in the pre-season then signing Pearce in late November. Other successful and unsuccessful attempts to sign players happened throughout the season, but despite missing many big names Nathan Brown and Darren Mooney remained patient. They targeted players from successful clubs to instill a winning mentality in the young squad. Every good side has a Batman and Robin – a dominant playmaker and his trusty sidekick; Ponga watched the best Batman and Robin combination of Jonathan Thurston and Michael Morgan at the Cowboys and will have learnt to follow Pearce around the field – just like Morgan did with Thurston – to find tryscoring opportunities.
Newcastle have a tough draw (the sixth hardest of any side), including seven games against last season’s top four and 14 top eight match-ups. Newcastle’s first six games are extremely tough, with four away games (including the Roosters and Storm), whilst they end the season with big matches against the Warriors, Panthers, Sharks and Dragons – all expected to compete for the finals. Newcastle will target rounds nine to 19, with eight home games and a bye, facing Origin-affected sides during this period. Newcastle have nine Friday night games, eight played at 6pm.
Top Tryscorer – Nathan Ross.
Top Pointscorer – Kalyn Ponga.
Club Player of the Year – Mitchell Pearce.
WHERE WILL THE NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS FINISH?