Monday 25 September 2017 / 02:29 PM

2016 preview: Newcastle Knights

In a nutshell…

The reigning wooden-spooners have drafted in a high-profile coach and are hanging their hopes on a star halfback recruit – but 2016 shapes distinctly as a rebuilding year for Nathan Brown’s side, which is battling it out with the Titans and Tigers as the teams least favoured by punters. The Knights won their first four games last year, but managed just four more victories in their remaining 20 fixture to collect the NRL’s least-wanted prize.

 

Recruitment

2016 Gains: David Bhana (New Zealand Warriors, 2017), Krys Freeman (2016), Trent Hodkinson (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2018), Mickey Paea (Hull FC, 2017), Will Pearsall (Manly Sea Eagles, 2017)

2016 Losses: Adam Clydsdale (Canberra Raiders), David Fa’alogo (retired), Kurt Gidley (Warrington Wolves), Kerrod Holland (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Chris Houston (Widnes Vikings), Joey Leilua (Canberra Raiders), Clint Newton (retired), Chad Redman (QLD Cup), Tyrone Roberts (Gold Coast Titans), Beau Scott (Parramatta Eels), Carlos Tuimavave (Hull FC)

Incumbent NSW halfback Hodkinson is the Knights’ only recruit of note, although Micky Paea could prove a handy buy. David Bhana is a solid backrower but nothing special. On the debit side, the club has lost a ton of experience in the form of Gidley, Scott, Mason, Fa’alogo, Houston, Newtown and Roberts.

 

Backs

The Knights’ biggest strength from a roster point of view, although settling on a fullback will be one of Brown’s most vital line-up decisions. Jake Mamo and Sione Mata’utia are the leading candidates, although neither boast the playmaking qualities of the game’s top No.1s. Mata’utia and Dane Gagai are the likely centre pairing, while blockbusting 2015 rookie Nathan Ross, who debuted at 26, and tryscoring machine Akuila Uate should get first crack on the wings. Uncertainty surrounds James McManus’ future, but Mata’utia’s talented brothers, Chanel and Pat, provide stiff competition for the incumbents.

 

Halves

Is there a more maligned/under pressure halves combination in the NRL than Trent Hodkinson and Jarrod Mullen? With Tyrone Roberts and Carlos Tuimavave departing there’s few other options at Nathan Brown’s disposal – which could prove a problem given Brown’s first-choice duo’s injury-prone ways. Promising teenagers Brock Lamb and Jack Cogger may get an opportunity at some stage.  

 

Forwards

A decent starting pack, provided Robbie Rochow enjoys an injury-free run and Tariq Sims can avoid more time sidelined by suspension. Kade Snowden, Korbin Sims and Jeremy Smith round out a solid-enough engine-room, but their forward depth is worryingly thin. The club needs more tyros like powerful Kiwi Joseph Tapine to emerge. Young guns Danny Levi and Tyler Randell will duke it out for the starting hooker role.

Trump cards

Dane Gagai: An absolute standout in a dreadful outfit last year, making his Queensland debut and leading Newcastle in try assists, line-breaks and tackle-breaks. Quite possibly the best fullback at the club, but the Knights need his strike in the centres.

Kade Snowden: The former Origin and Test prop enjoyed his best season since returning to the Hunter in 2012. The Knights need the 29-year-old to assume the role of pack leader.

Tyler Randell: Brilliant at hooker, five-eighth and backrow during his 2015 rookie campaign, Scone-born Randell has the potential to become one of the NRL’s most valuable utilities.

Under the pump

Trent Hodkinson: A poor Origin series and a sub-par campaign with Canterbury – which eventually saw his tenure with the club ended prematurely by a broken arm – made for a trying 2015 for Hodkinson. He remains one of the best ball-playing halves in the game, but the ‘saviour’ role is uncharted territory for the 27-year-old.

Jarrod Mullen: One of the great unfulfilled talents of the NRL era, Mullen was bogged down by injury last year and played just 10 games. Hodkinson can’t turn the team around on his own, although teaming up with a dominant organiser may be exactly the foil Mullen needs to excel.

Sione Mata’utia: Australia’s youngest-ever Test player – after just seven first-grade games – failed to fire as expected in his sophomore season. He started several games from the bench before settling at centre, but it’s unclear what his best spot is just yet. Described by Wayne Bennett as a future Knights captain, Mata’utia’s form is pivotal to Newcastle’s fortunes.

X-factors

Akuila Uate: He’s fallen off the rep radar, but Uate is still among the NRL’s most potent try-scorers, boasting a club record 109 in just 151 games.

Tariq Sims: A explosive backrower long touted for higher honours, Sims will miss the first month of the Knights’ campaign for the second successive year due to a suspension incurred in Round 26 last year. Newcastle is crying out for a game-breaker in the pack and it has to be Sims.

Danny Levi: The Junior Kiwis star only turned 20 in December but is far more mature than his birth certificate might suggest. Seven appearances in the top flight last year demonstrated his promise, and Levi has the potential to be a decade-long Knights servant – as well as Issac Luke’s eventual successor in the New Zealand No.9 jumper.

Achilles heel

Depth and star power, particularly in the forward pack. Attitude in defence was also well below standard in 2015, conceding 25.5 points per game last year (15th in the NRL).

 

2015 Stats Leaders

Tries: Akuila Uate – 12

Try Assists: Kurt Gidley, Dane Gagai – 9

Line Breaks: Akuila Uate, Dane Gagai – 14

Tackle Breaks: Dane Gagai – 74

Offloads: Kade Snowden – 36

Average Metres: Jake Mamo – 163.8

Average Tackles: Chris Houston – 35.7

 

Goalkicking

The Knights’ two main goalkickers, Kurt Gidley and Tyrone Roberts, have both departed. Fortunately, Hodkinson is one of the NRL’s genuine dead-eyes with a career percentage of 75.21 percent – although he went off the boil a bit last year, landing just two-thirds of his attempts. Dane Gagai and Tyler Randell both landed a couple of goals in 2015 and would appear to be the best credentialed back-ups.

The coach

Nathan Brown may only be 42, but he boasts more than a decade coaching at the top level with St George Illawarra, Huddersfield and St Helens. Whether that’s enough to turn around a club with roster weaknesses as glaring as Newcastle is debatable, however. Brown may already be in the gun with the RLPA after threatening to bench young Tapine if he shuns the Knights to sign a lucrative deal with Canberra. 

The captain

Gidley and Beau Scott were the two captains used in first grade last year, so a permanent new skipper must take over for the first time since Danny Buderus left in 2008. Jarrod Mullen has some experience in the role, while Jeremy Smith, Kade Snowden, Robbie Rochow and Hodkinson must all be in the mix.

 

Rep drain

Dane Gagai is a Queensland incumbent and Korbin Sims is on the fringes of a Maroons debut. A hot run of form could pitch Sione Mata’utia, Kade Snowden and Tariq Sims into the NSW frame, while Hodkinson will be under intense pressure to return the sky blue No.7 jumper he wore in 2014-15.

The draw

Mercifully, the Knights’ draw is ranked the ninth-hardest in the NRL based on last year’s finishing positions. They play three of the four 2015 preliminary finalists only the once, but have dual assignments against the Rabbitohs, Sharks, Storm, Sea Eagles and Warriors. A horror stretch from Round 7, when they face the Broncos, Sea Eagles, Roosters and Sharks in consecutive weeks, could be season-defining.

Big clash

The Knights need to make a big statement, and what better way to do that than to put away the favourites to take over their unwanted wooden spoon status, the Titans, in Round 1. It’s on the road, but the Knights have not lost at Robina since 2009.

 

Best line-up

Jake Mamo, Nathan Ross, Dane Gagai, Sione Mata’utia, Akuila Uate, Jarrod Mullen, Trent Hodkinson, Kade Snowden, Danny Levi, Korbin Sims, Tariq Sims, Robbie Rochow, Jeremy Smith. Int: Tyler Randell, Jack Stockwell, Joseph Tapine, Micky Paea.

 

What the bookies think

Premiership: $81 (14th)

Top 8: $3.75

Top 4: $9

Wooden Spoon: $7

 

CBS experts’ prediction

Will – 14th

Telly – 14th

Drew – 14th

[YouTube – Jazza Bowler Productions]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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