After finishing 7th and bowing out after week one of the finals for the last two seasons, Newcastle Knights will look to push on and show they are still a team on the incline, rather than one that has peaked and are on the way back down the ladder.
2022 KNIGHTS SQUAD
Mitchell Barnett, Bradman Best, Jayden Brailey, Jake Clifford, Adam Clune, Phoenix Crossland, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Tyson Frizell, Dane Gagai, Bailey Hodgson, Hymel Hunt, Jack Johns, Brodie Jones, Jacob Kiraz, David Klemmer, Krystian Mapapalangi, Kurt Mann, Jirah Momoisea, Brayden Musgrove, Kalyn Ponga, Chris Randall, Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Nathanael Sasagi, Pasami Saulo, Sauaso Sue, Leo Thompson, Enari Tuala, Chris Vea’ila, Dominic Young.
Whilst the Knights’ big name signing for 2022 is clearly the returning Queensland State of Origin centre Dane Gagai, their key-signing; by default, is unheralded halfback Adam Clune from the Dragons. When the Knights signed Clune, it was seen as a depth signing as Clune would act as the understudy to Mitchell Pearce, whilst also taking up the role as a mentor for the young halves coming through the grades. But those within the club knew that Clune was also a good insurance policy, with talk of Pearce leaving from the moment he signed his one-year extension earlier in 2021.
As they say, ‘where there is smoke there is fire’, and sure enough Pearce requested a release to secure a longer term and more lucrative deal overseas in France. This now opened the door for the 26-year-old Clune to battle it out with Knights’ junior Phoenix Crossland for the vacated No.7 jersey, which appears to have been won by Clune who was named at halfback for the opening trial vs the Bulldogs. Whilst Clune doesn’t have the resume of Pearce, nor the natural ability, those within the club including former Knights captain and legend Andrew Johns believe the Knights are in good hands under the steady guidance of the 25-game veteran Clune.
Despite the Knights having a much better record when Pearce played, it was clear for everyone to see that Pearce had lost a yard of pace and was no longer the same elite player that the Knights signed in 2018, so although his boots are large ones to fill, the void left isn’t quite as big as it might have been a few years ago. Clune is deceivingly quick and also boasts a very good short and long kicking game as does his halves partner Jake Clifford, this now leaves the Knights with two good general play kickers, something they didn’t have previously with the likes of Pearce, Connor Watson and Kurt Mann.
Signings: Dane Gagai (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Adam Clune (St. George Illawarra Dragons), Leo Thompson (Canberra Raiders), Krystian Mapapalangi (Manly Sea Eagles)
Departures: Mitchell Pearce (Catalan Dragons), Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters), Josh King (Melbourne Storm), Gehmat Shibasaki (Japanese Rugby), Starford To’a (Wests Tigers), Blake Green (retired)
KEY PLAYEREmbed from Getty Images
No prizes for picking who the Knights’ key-player is for 2022, with their No.1 Kalyn Ponga undoubtedly holding the key to their fortunes this year. Ponga is the Knights highest profile player and their highest paid, all due to the fact he is also their best and most dangerous player in attack. No other player at the Knights has the ability to change the game, or pull out a miracle play like KP can, but the secret to the Knights’ success is getting a more consistent and dominant season out of their prized possession.
Ponga will lead the Knights out in 2022 adding more weight on his capable shoulders, but he will also have the weight of speculation following him around as he is still yet to activate an option in his contract to stay at the Knights for season 2023 on a rich deal. Whilst Ponga has publicly committed his future to the club, those at Knights HQ will sleep a lot easier once it’s done in writing.
Ponga has spoken about the impact that working with Johns has had on himself and the team, with lots of talk coming out of the club about how the 8th Immortal has overhauled their attack, which ranked 15th last season, so it will be interesting to see how they setup with the ball, with the focus being around getting Ponga more quality ball. Last season Ponga touched the ball just as much if not more than the likes of Tom Trbojevic and James Tedesco, but he didn’t have the same impact as those two elite fullbacks due to the situations and positions he received the ball, something Johns is working on changing.
PLAYER TO WATCHEmbed from Getty Images
Newcastle have lost more players than they have recruited for this year, so they will look within their squad to fill the void and give opportunities for players to step up. One player who has stepped up is giant winger Dominic Young, the young English flyer of Jamaican descent joined the club last season from Huddersfield after playing just the one Super League game, and he made his NRL debut against the Tigers after just the two NSW Cup matches.
Whilst Young was clearly raw and probably not ready for NRL, you could see his natural ability and physical attributes of speed, size, and power, he impressed everyone at the club with how quickly he has progressed, and while he did learn some tough lessons in matches against the Storm and Roosters, he has taken them in his stride and now looks primed to secure a starting spot in Round 1 for the Knights on the wing.
With Newcastle moving on Star To’a this left Young to battle it out with veteran Hymel Hunt for the right-wing spot, but with the strides Young made this preseason, he was named to start in the first trial with Hunt being named on an extended bench. Whilst both Hunt and the club’s leading try-scorer from the past two-seasons Enari Tuala did a solid job last year on the wings, the Knights clearly struggled bringing the ball back from kick returns, the club have identified this and will be banking on Young’s physical attributes to help rectify this area of weakness.
Roosters (A), Tigers (H), Panthers (A), Sharks (A), Sea Eagles (H), Dragons (A), Eels (H), Storm (H), Cowboys (A), Bulldogs (Magic Round), Broncos (H), Warriors (A), Panthers (H), Raiders (A), Titans (H), Rabbitohs (H), Sea Eagles (A), Roosters (H), Bulldogs (H), Tigers (A), Broncos (A), Raiders (H), Titans (A), Sharks (H)
They say if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards, and many critics believe this adage reads true for Newcastle heading into season 2023. After finally breaking through a long drought of missed finals appearances the Knights qualified for the 2020 season playoffs, but the expectation for 2021 was to see them progress further and fight for a top four spot. But instead, they scraped into the finals and again went out in the first week losing to Parramatta. So, the question is have they peaked or is there still more to come from this squad of players?
Not many people will have the Knights making the finals in their preseason predictions, sighting the losses of Pearce and Watson as crucial ones, which haven’t been adequately replaced. But as mentioned earlier the boots left to fill from Pearce aren’t quite as big, they once were, and Clune will add value with his kicking game which was a weakness of Pearce. The loss of Watson is an interesting one, as he never quite made the most of his new role playing as a ball-playing lock forward, whilst he always added something with his competitiveness, he seemed to stagnate the attack rather than helping it flow.Embed from Getty Images
Knights’ coach Adam O’Brien has identified this role as one that needs to be filled with the right player, O’Brien wants to base their attack off a ball-playing lock, much like the likes of Penrith and Manly do with Isaah Yeo and Jake Trbojevic. Whilst O’Brien’s theory is sound, his choice of player to fill this key-role is a surprising one to say the least, Kurt Mann has played just about every position in his career, but a permanent move to the forwards is one not many saw coming. Mann has been tasked with baulking up and trying to emulate the role that Yeo and Trobjevic play for their clubs, whilst Mann is clearly a decent player who always gives 110%, it’s yet to be seen if he can lock down this position for the Knights, something he failed to do at five-eighth, hooker, and centre in his three seasons at the club.
Whether or not Mann turns out to be the ball-playing lock the Knights hope he can be could be vital to their fortunes in 2022; at least in an attacking capacity which as mentioned struggled in 2021. If the Mann experiment works and the influence of Johns helps revolutionise their attack, the Knights could prove the doubters wrong and not just make the finals but make that move up the ladder they feel is within their capabilities. The Knights have addressed their issues at right centre with the return of Gagai, the emergence of Young and return from injury for Edrick Lee, the Knights now have a dangerous back five, one that can stand up against any other in the NRL.Embed from Getty Images
The Knights already boast one of the better packs in the competition with the likes of the Saifiti twins, David Klemmer, Tyson Frizzel and Mitchell Barnett, and we should see further improvement from them on the back of a better kicking game and kick-return game, providing them with better field position to start their sets and less pressure to carry the burden like they did last year. An improved attacking game will also help the teams’ defence, as the more ‘petrol’ you make your opposition use up in defence will in turn limit their effectiveness once they’ve received the ball, something the Knights’ poorest attack failed to do last year.
Whilst the Knights’ fortunes for 2022 appear to be riding on plenty of ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ the same can be said about a large part of the competition, another aera where the Knights’ hopes depend on is their luck with injuries. The Knights have suffered through two extremely bad years of injuries in O’Briens’ tenure, and they will be hoping for a good bill of health for 2022, with the addition of conditioning guru Hayden Knowles joining the club to help in this area. Although it looks as though they haven’t quite shaken their bad luck in this area with Jayden Brailey set to miss half the year with an Achilles injury, a bitter blow for the club and another key-player missing from last years’ spine.