A season of ‘what ifs’ for the Newcastle Knights in 2018 after the Pride of the Hunter finished 11th. Whilst they will be disappointed by missing the finals, their loyal fans will be relieved to have avoided the wooden spoon for the first time in three seasons.
2018 Club Record
Competition Points: 20
2018 Player Achievements
Danny Buderus Medal: Kayln Ponga
Most Tries: Ken Sio (12)
Most Points: Ken Sio (98)
Newcastle went into 2018 with plenty of hope and promise after a busy off season recruitment drive that landed them exciting youngster Kalyn Ponga and NSW Origin halfback Mitchell Pearce, amongst a host of other players. After three consecutive wooden spoons, the Knights were touted as possible top eight contenders, but after a solid start to the season a pectoral injury to captain Pearce set the club back and they weren’t able to recover. The Knights finished the season in 11th, a much-improved effort; although some fans were left wondering what might have been if Pearce didn’t get injured, they finished the season where most experts expected them to.
Newcastle coach Nathan Brown didn’t hide his frustration with yet another season affected by injury; when asked to reflect on the season Brown was adamant things would have been different if Pearce hadn’t gone down in round 7; he pointed to a stretch of games the Knights lost during the middle period of the year that he felt might have had a different result if he had his captain and chief playmaker on the field. Pearce wasn’t the only new recruit to suffer a serious injury, with centre Tautau Moga and hooker Slade Griffin suffering season-ending ACL injuries, whilst former Roosters utility Connor Watson and Queensland forward Jacob Lillyman missed large periods of the season with nagging injuries. Other players such as Nathan Ross and Jake Saifiti couldn’t finish the season either; for a side who were short on depth the injury toll was one they simply couldn’t overcome.
It was a tale of two stories – with the Knights undertaking a massive player overhaul there were plenty of new faces and despite their unlucky run with injuries all the Knights recruits made an impact on and off the field. Whilst Griffin and Watson played well and veterans Chris Heighington and Aiden Guerra toiled away in the middle, it was the Pearce and Ponga combination that stole the show. When the two were on the field together in the early rounds Newcastle were winning games and sitting in the top 8, even when Pearce went down Ponga continued to show why he is the most exciting prospect in the game.
But for a large number of Knights players who have been at the club for a while their progression seemed to halt in 2018 after a promising finish to last year; maybe it was a case of these players thinking the new recruits would take up the slack or possibly some complacency. There was also the feeling some of these players felt entitled to a first grade spot and weren’t too happy about having to fight for their position – two young players reportedly asked for mid-season releases, which were denied.
Heading into the pre-season Newcastle have again been busy in the player market, recruiting four new players: Sharks’ duo Jessie Ramien and Edrick Lee will some much-needed firepower out wide, whilst Melbourne Storm and Origin front rower Tim Glasby will add some muscle in the middle following the retirements of veterans Heighington and Lillyman. The Knights’ latest recruit Mason Lino (Warriors) will add some depth to halves after the exits of youngsters Brock Lamb and Jack Cogger, but Newcastle will surely add a few more new faces to their squad.
NothingButLeague Player of the Season
It’s no surprise the NBL Knights’ player of the season is their exciting young fullback Ponga; after winning the RLPA Players’ Champion award and finishing second in the Dally M Player of the Year race there really was no other Knights player that came close.
After signing on for the largest contract for a teenager at the time, Ponga had a lot of pressure on his shoulders but with his laid back attitude this pressure was never going to affect him as he showed from the first game when he scored the Knights’ first try of the season.
Ponga’s game went to a new level when Pearce went down, and after the Maroons went down 1-0 in this year’s Origin series the SOS was sent to Ponga to make his Origin debut. Ponga came off the bench and played nearly an hour of the game in the forwards as he showed he could handle anything the game will throw at him.
2019 GAINS AND LOSSES
Jessie Ramien (Cronulla Sharks), Edrick Lee (Cronulla Sharks), Tim Glasby (Melbourne Storm), Mason Lino (New Zealand Warriors)
Jack Cogger (Canterbury Bulldogs), Nicholas Meaney (Canterbury Bulldogs), Chris Heighington (retired), Jacob Lillyman (retired), Pat Mata’utia (released), Chanel Mata’utia (released), Brock Lamb (released), Dylan Pythian (released), Jack Johns (South Sydney Rabbitohs)