After four years of pain, wooden spoons and being a long way away from the finals, 2019 is promising to be the year Nathan Brown’s dramatic rebuild finally takes shape in the Hunter.
And it has to be. The club and, more importantly, the fans simply won’t take any more of what has been dished up since Wayne Bennett left.
All the credit has to go to their passionate supporter base and the job Brown has done with a weak squad so far, but after climbing to 11th last season and threatening for the finals for a little while, this has to be the season where things click.
Not copping some of the key injuries they had last year will help, but with more personnel changes to the squad – and positive ones at that – Brown should now have the team he wants, so there are few excuses left.
The other positive heading into the new season is the Knights’ juniors have another year of experience under the belt.
The problem with that experience though is that, for the most part, it’s losing experience, and so the club needs to learn how to win again, and to implement a winning culture. But if they can build some confidence early on and keep the crowds flowing through the gate at a place which is one of the toughest road trips in the competition on a good day, the Knights should be finals bound.
Colours: red and blue
Home grounds: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Minor premierships: zero
Best finish in last five years: 2018 – 11th
2018 finish: 11th
Coach: Nathan Brown
Captain: Jamie Buhrer and Mitchell Pearce
Jamie Buhrer (c), Mitchell Pearce (c), Mitch Barnett, Herman Ese’ese, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, James Gavet, Tim Glasby, Slade Griffin, Aidan Guerra, Hymel Hunt, Brodie Jones, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Josh King, David Klemmer, Edrick Lee, Danny Levi, Mason Lino, Kurt Mann, Sione Mata’utia, Tautau Moga, Kalyn Ponga, Jesse Ramien, Nathan Ross, Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Pasami Saulo, Sam Stone, Connor Watson, Zac Woolford
Ins: James Gavet (New Zealand Warriors), Tim Glasby (Melbourne Storm), Hymel Hunt (South Sydney Rabbitohs), David Klemmer (Canterbury Bulldogs), Edrick Lee (Cronulla Sharks), Mason Lino (New Zealand Warriors), Kurt Mann (St George Illawarra Dragons), Jesse Ramien (Cronulla Sharks), Zac Woolford (Canterbury Bulldogs)
Outs: Jack Cogger (Canterbury Bulldogs), JJ Collins (Canberra Raiders), Cory Denniss (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Chris Heighington (retirement), Brock Lamb (Sydney Roosters), Jacob Lillyman (retirement), Chanel Mata’utia (Cessnock Goannas), Pat Mata’utia (released), Nick Meaney (Canterbury Bulldogs), Dylan Phythian (Burleigh Bears), Ken Sio (Salford Red Devils), Luke Yates (London Broncos)
It’s been another season of heavy recruitment, with staff putting together a team that must find a way into the top eight.
While they have lost plenty as well, they will feel the recruits outweigh the departures, with a lot of the players gone proving to be driftwood last year.
Of the youngsters, Jack Cogger, Cory Denniss, Nick Meaney, Brock Lamb and Dylan Phythian are all gone, while Luke Yates and Ken Sio have joined the Super League.
Two of the three remaining Mata’utia brothers from last year have departed as well, while JJ Collins joined the Raiders.
Their biggest loss is the retirement of veteran Chris Heighington, but they will still feel confident in abilities to replace him.
Of course, all of that is offset by the addition of David Klemmer, who is one of the best front rowers in the game. He will lead a pack featuring fellow new recruits James Gavet, and the consistent Tim Glasby.
Elsewhere, Mason Lino has been picked up in a nice depth addition to the halves, while Kurt Mann is expected to play the utility role from the bench, and Zac Woolford joins the squads.
It’s the outside backs which give the Knights their biggest plusses in 2019 though. Jesse Ramien is one of the best up-and-coming centres in the game, Edrick Lee has plenty to offer, and Hymel Hunt is another positive addition.
It appears the spine is locked in for the opening rounds, and they need to make a statement.
After struggling with injury at points last year, Mitchell Pearce will be hoping to be there for the journey as he forms a new-look halves combination with Kalyn Ponga.
Ponga has plenty to learn, but it’s exciting for fans nonetheless. They have few other options, with Lino the likely back-up in case of injury.
That means Connor Watson, who appeared confused in his role at times last year, will have a mortgage on the number one jersey, and needs to make it count from the outset.
The former Rooster has always had too many positions for his own good, but for the first time he comes into a season with the chance to impress at the back for a prolonged period.
At hooker, Slade Griffin will miss a significant chunk of the season with injury, meaning Danny Levi has the opportunity to make the jersey his.
When it comes to the backs, a return from injury and good recruitment options give Newcastle one of the strongest three-quarter lines in the competition.
Jesse Ramien will be the first man picked in the back five, with the powerful centre running in ten tries and 63 tackle breaks last season at Cronulla.
Ramien will be joined by Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who also has a spot for as long as his form stays solid. While SKD is always good for an error, he is also a strong ball-runner and knows how to find the tryline.
The other two positions are slightly contentious, however, as long as Tautau Moga doesn’t face any action for his off-field issues, he should take the other centre spot, with Kurt Mann and Edrick Lee queuing up to take it from him at the first slip-up.
Lee could also be a shout for the other wing, but Nathan Ross should just win the race on the back of his speed and ability to score.
This is Klemmer’s pack to lead.
He won’t be on his own, but Klemmer is an x-factor player who can flip a game in minutes. He is likely to be joined up front by the solid Tim Glasby, while Aidan Guerra grabs the lock jersey, giving them a strong and experienced middle third.
When it comes to the second row, Lachlan Fitzgibbon is one of the best at his craft, and should line up with Mitch Barnett on the other side.
There is plenty of potential for changes there, with Herman Ese’ese and Daniel Saifiti likely to be on the bench, but with names like James Gavet, Josh King, Jacob Saifiti and Pasami Saulo missing out, they have built up a handy pool.
Kalyn Ponga is likely to feature off the bench again for the Maroons, while Aidan Guerra and Tim Glasby might hold claims for the Queensland forward pack.
The interesting one is Mitchell Pearce. While most Blues fans will (rightly) feel his Origin career is over, a patch of good form and the Knights sitting at the top of the ladder could give him yet another chance.
Likely best 17
1. Connor Watson
2. Shaun Kenny-Dowall
3. Tautau Moga
4. Jesse Ramien
5. Nathan Ross
6. Kalyn Ponga
7. Mitchell Pearce (c)
8. David Klemmer
9. Danny Levi
10. Tim Glasby
11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon
12. Mitch Barnett
13. Aidan Guerra
14. Kurt Mann
15. Sione Mata’utia
16. Herman Ese’ese
17. Daniel Saifiti
What to make of Kalyn Ponga’s switch?
This is going to make or break the Knights season, really.
Ponga is the most talented youngster in the game. He excelled at fullback, and took to the Origin arena playing an unfamiliar role like a duck to water last year.
But this will be the biggest challenge of his career to date, and frankly, what’s been dished up in the trials hasn’t been amazing.
Some of his ball work was nice, but there were deficiencies, as some suspected in moving into the halves. It’s also going to put pressure on Pearce to do a lot of the kicking.
The problem is, those trials aren’t an accurate reflection of Ponga’s talent. There are going to be growing pains, but the Knights can’t afford them – they need to be winning from the get-go (as their fixture will reveal below).
If the combination of Ponga, Watson and Pearce is right, the Knights canter into the finals. Otherwise, it’ll be a tough slog.
Turning home into a fortress is a must
In the glory days, the Knights’ home ground – in its many different names – was a ridiculously tough place to play.
Think Brisbane, or Shark Park. It’s up there with the hardest trips in the competition, with a passionate supporter group creating an atmosphere which few other clubs rival.
The fans have kept rolling in during the tough times, and they will continue to this year with a heightened sense of expectation.
If Newcastle can take care of business a majority of the time at home, then they will go a long way towards September.
It’s even more crucial with so much youth around the club and some tough stretches away from home, where results could prove hard to come by.
David Klemmer needs to lead the pack
Out of all the signings across the competition this year, that of David Klemmer – a New South Wales Origin and Australian Kangaroos rep – to the Knights, is probably the biggest.
The big prop had an outstanding 2018, leading a struggling Bulldogs pack, who were beaten more often than not.
It wasn’t through a lack of his trying though, given Klemmer’s season-ending stats read 181 metres per game, 24 offloads, 38 tackle breaks and about 75 post contact metres.
More than that, he would so often get his team on the front foot, dragging defenders in and then either offloading or getting a quick play-the-ball.
While Canterbury couldn’t capitalise, the team Newcastle have built – with some other strong forwards also around Klemmer – should do just that.
|1||Fri Mar 15||6pm||Cronulla Sharks||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|2||Sat Mar 23||5:30pm||Penrith Panthers||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|3||Fri Mar 29||6pm||Canberra Raiders||GIO Stadium||Fox|
|4||Sun Apr 7||6:10pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|5||Sat Apr 13||5:30pm||Manly Sea Eagles||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|6||Sun Apr 21||2pm||Gold Coast Titans||CBus Super Stadium||Fox|
|7||Sun Apr 28||4:05pm||Parramatta Eels||McDonald Jones Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|8||Sun May 5||2pm||New Zealand Warriors||MT Smart Stadium||Fox|
|9||Sat May 11||3pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||Suncorp Stadium||Fox|
|10||Sun May 19||2pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||Glen Willow Stadium||Fox|
|11||Fri May 24||7:55pm||Sydney Roosters||McDonald Jones Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|13||Fri Jun 7||6pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|14||Sat Jun 15||3pm||Melbourne Storm||AAMI Park||Fox|
|15||Sat Jun 29||5:30pm||Brisbane Broncos||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|16||Sat Jul 6||7:35pm||New Zealand Warriors||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|17||Fri Jul 12||7:55pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||McDonald Jones Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|18||Sat Jul 20||3pm||Sydney Roosters||Sydney Cricket Ground||Fox|
|19||Fri Jul 26||6pm||Wests Tigers||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|20||Sat Aug 3||3pm||Manly Sea Eagles||Lottoland||Fox|
|21||Sat Aug 10||5:30pm||Parramatta Eels||Western Sydney Stadium||Fox|
|22||Sat Aug 17||3pm||North Queensland Cowboys||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|23||Sat Aug 24||5:30pm||Wests Tigers||Campbelltown Stadium||Fox|
|24||Sat Aug 31||3pm||Gold Coast Titans||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|25||Sun Sep 8||4:05pm||Penrith Panthers||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Penrith Panthers, St George Illawarra Dragons, Manly Sea Eagles, Gold Coast Titans, Parramatta Eels, New Zealand Warriors, Canterbury Bulldogs, Sydney Roosters, Wests Tigers
Best home run: Round 1 – Round 7 (five out of seven)
Worst away run: Round 8 – Round 14 (five out of six)
Five-day turnarounds: one
We will know what the Knights’ chances look like after seven rounds.
They start the season with four out of five, and five out of seven, at McDonald Jones Stadium, and have mainly winnable matches during those first two months.
While they will be tested out by teams like the Panthers, Dragons and Sharks, they also play teams like the Eels, Raiders and Sea Eagles during that stretch, with their other match in the opening stanza to come against the unpredictable Titans.
You’d think they need to be four, maybe five out of their first seven to start building that confidence which will be so important, especially given they spend five of the next six weeks on the road, with trips to New Zealand, Mudgee, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Their season really ebbs and flows in tough and easier stretches, but if they can make the most of their home runs and build momentum, then anything is possible for Newcastle, who have a double-up schedule about as easy as you can get, to go with just a single five-day turnaround for the season.
As a neutral, I’m really looking forward to tuning into Newcastle games this year. They should play an exciting style, and if they can fix up those defensive issues, they should be near the top eight at the end of the season.
They aren’t going to win a premiership in 2019, but they will make the finals, and gain some valuable experience to boot.
Be sure to check back tomorrow, when another team who missed the eight in 2018 get placed into sixth spot for 2019.
16th – Parramatta Eels
15th – Canberra Raiders
14th – Manly Sea Eagles
13th – New Zealand Warriors
12th – Canterbury Bulldogs
11th – Cronulla Sharks
10th – Wests Tigers
9th – Gold Coast Titans
8th – Brisbane Broncos