As the National Rugby League season draws closer, we look at how the Newcastle Knights will go in 2020.
After promising so much last season and delivering so little, season 2020 really is a make or break season for the Knights. The majority of the squad have been at the club for a long time now, and many seemed to stagnate under Nathan Brown. The new coach will have the entire squad on notice, as another failed season could end in some tough decisions being made.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Hull KR), James Gavet (Huddersfield), Jamie Buhrer (released), Zac Woolford (released), Jesse Ramien (Sharks), Slade Griffin (retired), Nathan Ross (retired), Danny Levi (Sea Eagles), Beau Fermor (Titans)
TOP 30: Mitch Barnett, Bradman Best, Jayden Brailey, Phoenix Crossland, Herman Ese’ese, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Tim Glasby, Aiden Guerra, Hymel Hunt, Brodie Jones, Josh King, Dave Klemmer, Edrick Lee, Mason Lino, Kurt Mann, Sione Mata’utia, Tautau Moga, Jirah Momoisea, Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Pasami Saulo, Gehamat Shibasaki, Star To’a, Enari Tuala, Connor Watson.
SPOTS AVAILABLE: three.
DEVELOPMENT PLAYERS: Matt Croker, Tex Hoy, Luke Huth, Nathanael Sasagi.
Warriors (H), Tigers (A), Sharks (A), Cowboys (H), Manly (A)
WHAT TO EXPECT
The 2019 season was one that promised so much for the Newcastle Knights, but in the end it was a year that everyone associated with the club wanted to end as soon as possible. As had been the case with Newcastle during the Nathan Brown era, there was plenty of ‘positive chat’ coming from within the club, and the players seemed comfortable to talk up their chances at every opportunity, which many people think led to complacency that dogged their season. It’s no coincidence there is less talk coming from the players now under the watch of new coach Adam O’Brien.
After learning his trade under the guidance of two of the sharpest minds in game during his time at the Storm and Roosters, O’Brien should have fair idea how to get the best out of his players, much like Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson did whilst O’Brien was doing his ‘apprenticeship’. O’Brien has talked about getting the players “feeling comfortable being uncomfortable” by pushing the players to their limits in a gruelling off-season. Despite bringing in a few players to bolster his roster, the addition of O’Brien could prove to be the Knights’ most important purchase.
The influence O’Brien has on the game of Kalyn Ponga will be most intriguing, and the most crucial for the finals chances of the Knights. Ponga has dazzled the competition in his first two seasons, but there are areas of his game where he has significant room for improvement, such as his middle third play. Thus far Ponga has done most of his good work on the edges running off the back of block plays, but he is seldom found lurking around the middle of the ruck. Having worked with the two best fullbacks of the last decade in Billy Slater and James Tedesco, O’Brien has seen first hand the importance of a team’s number one playing the middle third, and how much hard work those two players get through, and what that does for their sides, can he get the same volume out of KP?
Former Sharks rake Jayden Brailey is the highest profile on-field signing for the Knights; after making way for his younger brother Blayke at Cronulla, Jayden has plenty to prove and will have circled their round three fixture when the Knights face his old side. Brailey was actually signed by Brown but has been endorsed by O’Brien, who’s first signing was former Bronco centre Gehamat Shibasaki. A big strong centre, Shibasaki could also spend time in the back row, but he’ll be aiming to make the vacant number three jersey – left by Jesse Ramien – his own.
Newcastle have been given a fairly easy draw for 2020 with the club having the luxury of only playing the Roosters, Storm & Raiders once. They will spend a lot of time on the road in the first third of the season, drawing five out of seven games away after their round one clash at home to the Warriors. A tough middle part of the year, where they face O’Brien’s former clubs, along with a star-studded South Sydney side, could be determined by the amount of players lost to rep footy during that period. Newcastle’s season lost its momentum after Game III of Origin last year, so they’ll look to better navigate through that period this season.
Top Tryscorer – Edrick Lee.
Top Pointscorer – Kayln Ponga.
Club Player of the Year – David Klemmer.
WHERE WILL NEWCASTLE FINISH?
Despite their season finishing off is such disappointing circumstances, the Knights looked very much a top eight side for large parts of 2019, so the expectation from the club is that with some subtle changes from the new coaching staff, the Knights should be making their first finals appearance since 2013.