How will the Knights handle an expectation for results for the first time in half a decade?
2017 SNAPSHOT: 16th (5-19); Points For – 428 (14th), Points Against – 648 (16th).
BEST RECRUIT: It’s a credit to the fantastic job the Knights front office has done that picking this category is almost impossible. They’ve ticked all the boxes: superstar firepower in Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and potentially Connor Watson, veteran bench depth with Jacob Lillyman and Chris Heighington, and some offensive strike in Tautau Moga, Herman Ese’ese and Aidan Guerra. A potentially franchise-altering recruitment drive and an excellent job all round.
KEY MAN: Mitchell Pearce’s arrival at Newcastle sparks the intention to turn over a new leaf and begin climbing the NRL hierarchy. Immediately the Knights’ best player, he’ll be tasked with directing the offence and will have a style of play implemented that lends itself perfectly to his own preferences. The next level of success would be unlocked by a veteran turn for Pearce and an assumption of a leadership role that has eluded him through his career thus far. If it all comes together, he’s the man to lead Newcastle on their finals pursuit.
“The team is disciplined in the gym and on the field… and they’ve got smart footy brains,” – Mitchell Pearce
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) December 20, 2017
UNDER THE PUMP: It’s tough to claim a 21-year-old club captain as under pressure, especially as he’s been tasked with switching positions (and into the forwards from the outside-backs, no less) on what was a losing team most weeks. And whilst Sione Mata’utia was making strides and developing into a neat back-rower, centre remains his best position for the time being. Considering his defensive brilliance, Sione may quickly regain his comfort and begin contributing more than in recent times, and the pressure is on to finally begin flashing signs of the immense potential that wowed the league when he stepped on the scene at 18. Expect Steve Matai comparisons and a whole bunch of new supporters this season.
SELECTION POSER: Many are ready to concede the starting hooker spot to Danny Levi, keen to give the talented 22-year-old a chance to grow into the role. But beware, as Levi has showed constantly that he isn’t ready to put up consistent performances as a full-time starter just yet, his overall rawness coming back to bite in a few crucial moments last season. For the start of the season at least, starting Buhrer at No.9 to absorb the defensive duties before interjecting the speedy Levi into tired rucks is the best option. The Issac Luke comparison is spot on, but Luke didn’t become an elite player until midway through his 20s — Levi needs the same timeframe to grow and reach his immense potential. Melbourne premiership-winner Slade Griffin gives ex-hooker Brown another dummy-half option.
Danny Levi says he learned plenty from some of the stars of the game at the World Cup, as he kicks off his 2018 pre-season.
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) November 27, 2017
YOUNG GUN: Kalyn Ponga, the highest-rated prospect entering the league, makes his long awaited arrival in the Hunter. The potential is off the charts, but as he enters his first full season of first grade, patience must be the main agenda as he learns the ropes. Watching the talented fullback blossom will be one of the Knights’ most intriguing storylines.
BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: Plenty of the Knights are on the curb and are expected to take a big leap this season, and Daniel Saifiti will be integral to the team’s performances coming together. He may have a lower profile than some of the club’s other well-known recruits, but he shouldn’t be overlooked considering his steady improvement and moulding into a foundational piece of their forward pack with his strong, consistent presence at prop. At just 21, Saifiti has the tools to grow into one of the game’s best big men, and this could be the season the rugby league world starts taking notice of his potential. A fundamental piece to the successful reconstruction of this team.
“I’ve had the starting spot for the last two years and it’s not something I want to give up.”
We spoke to Daniel Saifiti about his goals for 2018!
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) November 23, 2017
THE STAT: The Knights’ fans have remained resistant to results through the entire rebuild, improving again to the fourth-highest average home attendance (15,619 per game) in the regular season, an outstanding accomplishment for a team ranked 16th for three consecutive seasons. Over all other reasons, the fans are most deserving of an on-field turnaround.
COACH’S JOB SECURITY DANGER RATING: Low – Brown has been given plenty of margin for error through his time at Newcastle, and whilst the past few seasons’ results have been disappointing, the quality of the roster was mostly to blame. Now that the tide is beginning to turn, judging Brown’s coaching job becomes fair game for the first time in his tenure. The results will swing the perception of him going forward, but it’s unlikely his job comes under fire this season.
— Nothing But Knights (@NothingButNK) December 13, 2017
THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – A mid-season homestand where eight of their 10 games are in Newcastle will help bolster them through the Origin period. No five-day turnarounds.
Glass Half Empty – Tough schedule with seven games against last year’s top four and 14 of their 24 games against finals teams from 2017. Only two home games in their first eight weeks and two from their last six.
POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 2018:
1 Kaylyn Ponga
2 Nathan Ross
3 Sione Mata’utia
4 Tautau Moga
5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall
6 Connor Watson
7 Mitchell Pearce
8 Josh King
9 Jamie Buher
10 Daniel Saifiti
11 Aidan Guerra
12 Lachlan Fitzgibbon
13 Mitch Barnett
14 Danny Levi
15 Herman Ese’ese
16 Jacob Saifiti
17 Jacob Lillyman
— Nothing But Knights (@NothingButNK) January 18, 2018
WAY-TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Finals pretender, Bottom eight