TK's take on the Newcastle Knights:
Coaching - In his first season in charge of the Knights, Adam O’Brien returned the Knights to finals for the first time since 2013. He has a great assistant coach in Willie Peters while it will be interesting to see the role Anthony Seibold plays as a consultant in the coming season.
Roster - The Knights are blessed to have some of the elite players of the game. Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, David Flemmer, Daniel Saifiti and Tyson Frizell are all representative standard players. Consistency amongst the spine is the key to the season. There seemed to be a curse on the number 9 jersey with so many key players succumbing to injury. Jayden Brailey returns from his ACL injury however at this stage doesn’t have a specialist backup with most likely Kurt Mann or Conor Watson to help out in this area.
Forwards on paper - David Klemmer was really unlucky to miss out on Brad Fittler’s Blues selection, the rumoured reason why he missed was weak IMO. Great to see Jacob Saifitit come on leaps and bounds, which follows the great development of his brother Daniel Saifiti who had another impressive origin campaign. The signing of Tyson Frizell is significant and will add punch onto the right edge which will complement Lachlan Fitzgibbon on the left. Mitchell Barnett’s permanent move from the edge to the middle really worked wonders and his work rate suits more the defensive workload up the guts. At times the pack were a bit underwhelming and if the side is to improve from seventh position, they will need to be more consistently dominate across the season.
Centres - Probably the only weakness on the Knights roster. They do have one of the best young centres in Bradman Best but he missed a large chunk of the season with injury. Both Enari Tuala and Gehamat Shibasaki had their opportunities and were good at times, but neither nailed the starting jersey. Coach O’Brien could elect to push Hymel Hunt into the centres or promote rookie Englishman Dominic Young who is 19 and has signed from Huddersfield where he made his debut at 17. His a big unit tipping the scales at 106kg.
Leadership - Off field distractions threaten to hamper the Knights season before it even begins. Another off-field incident headlined by captain Mitchell Pearce has reportedly caused issues within the playing group and there are rumours of Pearce being stripped of the captaincy. If this is true it does highlight a weakness in leadership, with no clear cut captaincy option within the current squad if Pearce was removed from his role. They need to sort this quickly.
Injuries at hooker - Season ending ACL’s to both Jayden Brailey and Andew McCullough left a major hole at dummy half. Both players were playing very well before picking up their injuries. Chris Randall got some game time but at this stage his name isn’t sited on the official top 30, while Kurt Mann was moved into the role after the club was able to sign Blake Green mid season from the Warriors, but Green then followed the others in tearing his ACL also.
Centre - A weakness is also the largest opportunity which could go to Tuala, Shibasaki, Hunt or Young. Having not seen Young in action my preference would be Tuala, however he did have his worst game in his career in the semi-final against Souths but I feel he should be given the first opportunity to bounce back if he has trained the house down over the offseason. Don’t be surprised if O’Brien shakes it up with Young though.
Five-eighth and Bench Utility - Both Kurt Mann and Conor Watson are both obvious candidates for these roles. Mann was brilliant across the season. To consider some off field adversity he was handling it was full credit to Mann for the consistency we saw across the season. Watson is returning from an achilles tear and from speaking to the NRL physio, he feels it the second season after return that the player fully recovers and is back to peak performance in regards to the achilles. Given previous injuries it might be best to ease him in via the interchange bench. There have been rumours of a potential switch to lock or a middle position but again given the amount of football he has missed, this again may be better served from a utility spot on the interchange. Blake Green has also signed on for another season after the Bulldogs released him from his deal. Might miss a fair chunk of the early season, Green did look very good next to Pearce and opened up the running game for Kalyn Ponga.
VERDICT - Finals bound. Have a great roster across the park but their finish will be determined by the ability of their pack to stamp their dominance and also the current messy off-field issues to be sorted quickly. On paper the Knights have the brilliance to be a top four outfit but with the NRL being so closely contested, player unrest amongst themselves can easily bring the team undone.
For Round 1, Kalyn Ponga is still in doubt from offseason shoulder surgery. Given we are back to 25 rounds the club might take a cautious approach particularly with Tex Hoy as a capable backup.