Will Evans’ series of 2017 NRL club previews appeared in the summer special of Rugby League Review magazine.
At the end of a year that saw Newcastle finish with its second straight wooden spoon, produce the least wins in a season by a team since 1993, and piece together the longest losing streak in over 30 years, the Knights have suddenly emerged as the NRL’s new mover and shaker.
All the Knights had to show for their 2016 campaign was one win and one draw, finishing with 18 straight defeats and little prospect of improvement in the near future due to an inexperienced roster painfully short on rep-quality talent.
The club’s off-season recruitment for 2017 has down little to raise optimism in the Hunter, with the arrival of Jamie Buhrer, Rory Kostjasyn, Josh Starling, Ken Sio and Englishman Joe Wardle barely offsetting the retirement of Jeremy Smith, Kade Snowden and James McManus, and the departure of Robbie Rochow, Jake Mamo and Akuila Uate.
But the club has pulled off a coup by signing boom North Queensland Cowboys teenager Kalyn Ponga to a five-year deal, while Cronulla duo Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird are also reportedly in their sights.
The bad news is none of these blue-chips youngsters will arrive before the 2018 season – the Cowboys have so far blocked the Knights’ attempt to get Ponga to the Hunter Valley immediately – and that means another character-testing season looms for Nathan Brown’s side.
— Nothing But Knights (@NothingButNK) December 8, 2016
There’s a natural inclination to hold out hope any cellar dweller can make a move up the ladder in any given season in the NRL. But when a team brimming with youth has conceded 33 points on average and scored less than 13 a game and fails to add significantly to its roster, who is going to replace them at the bottom?
The Knights are arguably the only team that is absolutely no chance to play finals footy in 2017.
BEST RECRUIT: Former Manly premiership winner Jamie Buhrer brings experience, versatility and class to a Newcastle side in desperate need of all three qualities. He is exactly the type of stabilising influence the club is crying out for.
— NRL (@NRL) November 28, 2016
STRENGTH: A talented batch of youngsters and extremely low expectations should allow the Knights to quietly rebuild after the least successful season by any club in the NRL era.
WEAKNESS: A gaping void of experience, a worrying depth deficiency in most areas, and the lack of a genuine marquee player. Winning is a habit, but most of the current Knights crop are well-accustomed to the practice of losing football games.
KEY MAN: Dane Gagai was Newcastle’s best player by a mile in 2016, never throwing in the towel despite the Knights’ woes and starring in Queensland’s Origin series triumph. He was very unlucky to miss out on a Four Nations berth, and will again by the Knights backline’s go-to player, whether at centre or fullback.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Sione Mata’utia fell off the rugby league map in 2015 after becoming Australia’s youngest Test player with just seven NRL games to his name. But he responded superbly during an injury-hampered 2016, regaining his game-breaker status in the centres, while it appears second-row may actually be his best position.
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) November 4, 2016
YOUNG GUN: Jack Cogger made six rookie-season appearances and looked the goods. With Jarrod Mullen nearing the end of his career, there’s an opportunity for the 19-year-old to forge a regular NRL spot next year.
UNDER PRESSURE: Trent Hodkinson was solid enough in difficult circumstances during his initial year in Newcastle, and as one of the precious few players at the club with genuine big-game experience, the youthful team will look to their No.7 for guidance again.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Veteran half Mullen has missed 32 games in the last three seasons and once again appears to be at a career crossroads after a recurrence of a series hamstring injury. The former NSW half is a wonderful playmaker on his day, but those days have been less and less frequent since last representing Country in 2014.
THE COACH: Nathan Brown talked a good game throughout 2016, diverting pressure away from his position by declaring the Knights are a long-term project and need to go through more pain in the short-term to rebuild. But how many wooden spoons will the club be prepared to collect before losing patience with Brown?
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) December 23, 2016
THE DRAW: The Knights need as many favours as they can get, but they’ve been handed the third-hardest draw in the competition. They play six of the 2016 finalists twice (although they only play the Broncos and Cowboys once each), but they have a very light travel load for a non-Sydney team. After a Round 1 trip to Auckland and a cluster that sees them go to Townsville and Gold Coast back-to-back, then Melbourne a few weeks later, their only away game beyond Sydney in the second half of the season is a Round 25 clash in Canberra.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Nathan Brown (2016-current)
Danny Buderus (2015)
Rick Stone (2009-11, 2015)
Wayne Bennett (2012-14)
Brian Smith (2007-09)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2017
1 Dane Gagai
2 Nathan Ross
3 Brendan Elliott
4 Pat Mata’utia
5 Jake Mamo
6 Jarrod Mullen
7 Trent Hodkinson
8 Josh Starling
9 Rory Kostjasyn
10 Jacob Saifiti
11 Korbin Sims
12 Mitchell Barnett
13 Jamie Buhrer
14 Tyler Randell
15 Daniel Saifiti
16 Pauli Pauli
17 Sam Mataora
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) December 18, 2016