Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
Rarely has the campaign of a reigning wooden-spooner – let alone a club that has finished last three seasons in a row – been as hotly anticipated as the Newcastle Knights’ 2018 NRL foray.
Ahead of their 30th season in the Knights have embarked on the most extensive recruitment drive in their history.
Budding superstar Kalyn Ponga’s signature was secured early last year, while former Kiwi Shaun Kenny-Dowall arrived mid-season before Origin stars Aiden Guerra, Jacob Lillyman and Mitchell Pearce, premiership winners Chris Heighington and Slade Griffin, and young guns Connor Watson, Herman Ese’ese and Tautau Moga committed to a move to the Hunter.
Consequently, the departure of Dane Gagai, Trent Hodkinson, Peter Mata’utia, Brendan Elliot and Tyler Randell, among others, barely created a ripple.
Though Newcastle’s team sheet will have a distinctly different look in 2018, the welter of big-name arrivals is complemented by the recent rise of several promising tyros. The likes of Mitch Barnett, Jacob and Daniel Saifiti, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Sam Stone and Brock Lamb may not have many wins against their name during their brief NRL tenures, but they have gained a valuable rugby league education in Nathan Brown’s battling side.
More experienced types Jamie Buhrer, Danny Levi, Nathan Ross and incumbent captain Sione Mata’utia will also be relishing the influx of blue-chip talent to the Knights set-up.
After winning just six games since Brown’s arrival in 2016, the Knights are at short odds to offload the spoon – but with high-profile recruits comes expectation and pressure, a situation the club hasn’t had to contend with since the Andrew Johns era.
Whether they thrive or tank, the Knights shape as one of the most fascinating teams to follow this season.
BEST RECRUIT: It’s hard to pick out just one from such a quality group, but no player will have more of an influence on the Knights’ on-field fortunes in 2018 than Mitchell Pearce. The oft-maligned NSW stalwart can feel rightfully aggrieved at the way he was shunted out of the Roosters after 11 seasons of stellar service, but a new challenge at a rebuilding club has the potential to produce some of the most glittering highlights of the 28-year-old’s rollercoaster career.
STRENGTH: First for the first time in many years, the Knights boast top-shelf players in key positions, plenty of depth and an ideal blend of youth and experience.
WEAKNESS: The weight of expectation on a side that will need plenty of time to gel. The Knights have a tough early-season draw and pressure will mount quickly if the losses pile up again.
KEY MAN: Aside from Pearce, the player Newcastle desperately needs to fire is fullback Kalyn Ponga. No Knights player has worn the No.1 jumper more than 14 times in a season since Darius Boyd in 2013, and the 19-year-old Ponga will be expected to nail down the position from the get-go. Freakishly gifted, Ponga only played nine NRL games for the Cowboys – and just one since Round 9 last year – so it’s likely he’ll take some time to adjust to the rigours of such a demanding role.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Sione Mata’utia’s career stalled somewhat after becoming Australia’s youngest Test player in 2014, but he was handed the captaincy at the age of 20 midway through last year – a sign of his burgeoning maturity, toughness and consistency. Whether he leads the new-look line-up in 2018 or not, and whether he plays centre or second-row, Mata’utia should flourish in an improved Knights side after tasting victory in just a quarter of his 67 NRL appearances to date.
YOUNG GUN: After dipping his toes in the NRL waters in 2015-16, rangy forward Lachlan Fitzgibbon emerged as an outstanding prospect during the second half of last year. The South Newcastle junior scored eight tries in 11 second-row starts in 2017 and will be eager to cement a place in a crack Knights pack.
UNDER PRESSURE: Connor Watson was trumpeted as a prized signing back in July, but being joined in Newcastle by former Roosters club-mate Pearce has added an intriguing layer of pressure to the utility’s first season in blue and red. Watson has been slated to start at five-eighth alongside Pearce – meaning boom Knights half Brock Lamb, who boasts 10 more run-on games in the NRL than Watson, will be playing reserve grade. The 21-year-old Watson must perform right off the bat.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Shaun Kenny-Dowall played some of the best football of his career during the Roosters’ minor premiership three-peat, but went off the boil over the last couple of years amid off-field turbulence. He performed adequately after being thrown a lifeline by the Knights late last season, but with plenty of competition in the outside-backs, SKD can’t afford an erratic start to 2018.
THE COACH: Nathan Brown has largely been given a pass mark despite two wooden spoons due to the Knights’ lack of quality playing personnel; some would say he’s used it as a crutch. But now he has a squad brimming with class – and the excuses will run out very quickly for Brown if his side can’t at least bust out of the bottom-four.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Nathan Brown (2016-current)
Danny Buderus (2015)
Rick Stone (2009-11, 2015)
Wayne Bennett (2012-14)
Brian Smith (2007-09)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $31.00
GAINS: Herman Ese’ese (Brisbane Broncos), Slade Griffin (Melbourne Storm), Aidan Guerra (Sydney Roosters), Christian Hazard (2018), Chris Heighington (Cronulla Sharks), Jacob Lillyman (New Zealand Warriors), Tautau Moga (Brisbane Broncos), Brent Naden (Canberra Raiders), Mitchell Pearce (Sydney Roosters), Kalyn Ponga (North Queensland Cowboys), Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters)
LOSSES: David Bhana (released), Brendan Elliot (Gold Coast Titans), Jaelen Feeney (released), Dane Gagai (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jacob Gagan (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Trent Hodkinson (Cronulla Sharks), Rory Kostjasyn (retired), Peter Mata’utia (Leigh Centurions), Sam Mataora (retired), Jarrod Mullen (released), Mickey Paea (Hull FC), Pauli Pauli (Wakefield Trinity), Will Pearsall (released), Tyler Randell (Wakefield Trinity), Josh Starling (retired), Jack Stockwell (Gold Coast Titans), Anthony Tupou (retired), Joe Wardle (Castleford Tigers)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Kalyn Ponga
2 Nathan Ross
3 Tautau Moga
4 Sione Mata’utia
5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall
6 Connor Watson
7 Mitchell Pearce
8 Jacob Lillyman
9 Danny Levi
10 Daniel Saifiti
11 Aidan Guerra
12 Lachlan Fitzgibbon
13 Mitch Barnett
14 Jamie Buhrer
15 Herman Ese’ese
16 Slade Griffin
17 Chris Heighington