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Opinion

NRL 2022 Radar: Knights need higher quantity of Ponga quality to avoid mid-table mediocrity

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Expert
11th January, 2022
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Newcastle are possibly the hardest team to predict in 2022 with their halves quandary, Kalyn Ponga’s fluctuations and their inconsistency over the past two seasons adding up to a side whose results could vary wildly.

If all goes right on the Knights, they could challenge for the top four but an injury or two and they could not only miss the top eight but end up way down near the bottom of the ladder.

Their hopes have already been dealt a massive blow with co-captain Jayden Brailey out long term after suffering an Achilles tear in pre-season training, meaning Chris Randell or perhaps utility Kurt Mann will take over at hooker.

Mitchell Pearce’s exit midway through the off-season for Catalans leaves a hole in the halves and apart from Dragons recruit Adam Clune, they have not yet bolstered their playmaking options.

Clune is an interesting proposition – a late bloomer who made his NRL debut two seasons ago at 24, he racked up 25 games without ever consolidating a spot at St George Illawarra.

Unless the Knights make a late signing, he is likely to suit up alongside Jake Clifford in a new-look halves combo. Both players have potential and are strong across areas like organising, game management, passing and kicking, but for the Knights to rise up the ladder, their fullback can’t take a back seat.

Jake Clifford

Jake Clifford. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

For all his supreme natural talent, Ponga still doesn’t seem to get involved enough in the on-field action.

By no means should he become a primary playmaker but his involvement in attacking raids needs to rise in quantity to match the unquestionable quality.

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Entering his sixth year with 83 NRL appearances under his belt, Ponga is no longer a player of great potential – the 23-year-old is entering the prime of his career.

Last season was another injury-interrupted one but his line breaks were down, his running metres dropped nearly 30 metres on average, and he came up with a couple fewer passes per game.

If these numbers don’t trend upwards, Newcastle’s ladder position will head downwards.

After a painful rebuild over four years, the Knights have made the first round of the finals the past two seasons without ever really threatening to become legitimate title contenders.

For coach Adam O’Brien, the prospect of getting the best out of Ponga relates to their main problem – scoring points.

Only wooden spooners Canterbury registered fewer points than Newcastle last season with the Knights ranked 11th in line break assists, 12th in line breaks, 13th in tackle breaks, 14th in try assists and 15th in decoy runs.

They were too safe. Their defence was more than solid and they gave away the lowest number of penalties in the league but that kind of approach can only get you so far – an even win-loss record and scraping into the playoffs.

Dane Gagai’s return after a four-year stint at South Sydney should give the Knights more strike power out wide but their other centre, Bradman Best, is likely to produce more points.

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Both he and Ponga have had their development stifled by injuries but if they can string a run of games together and throw in a noted hole-runner in second-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Newcastle’s left edge will provide the potency they’ve been sadly lacking.

What’s new
Dane Gagai has returned after four seasons with South Sydney, instantly ending their search to find a centre partner for Bradman Best. Clune has also headed north from St George Illawarra to replace Pearce after he opted to end his career in the south of France. With no other new recruits and Connor Watson (Roosters), Josh King (Storm), Gehamat Shibasaki (Japanese rugby) and Blake Green (retired) no longer at the club, O’Brien will lean on Newcastle’s famed production line to provide depth.

Star on the rise
Jake Clifford has been tipped for big things since starting for the Junior Kangaroos in 2018, the year he made his NRL debut for the Cowboys. After moving to the Hunter midway through last season, he played second fiddle to Pearce in the halves but now it’s his time to become Newcastle’s chief playmaker. His Australian youth teammates like Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Zac Lomax have become established stars, Clifford needs to do the same for Newcastle to succeed in 2022.

Who’s under the pump
David Klemmer was undoubtedly the best prop in the game a couple of years ago but he has fallen back in the pack behind Payne Haas, Storm veteran Jesse Bromwich, Raiders enforcer Josh Papalii and Newcastle teammate Jacob Saifiti.

Best-case scenario
After making first-round finals exits the past two years, it’s hard to see the Knights going any higher next year unless Ponga is healthy all season and produces quality performances pretty much every week. Their pack is one of the best in the NRL and Gagai solves a problem area at centre.

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Worst-case scenario
The halves are a problem area and with Pearce finishing his career in France, it means Newcastle head into the season with Clifford and Clune as their likely starting playmakers. Generating points was a major issue for the Knights last season and these two aren’t renowned as attacking dynamos so they could drop out of the finals equation unless Ponga can conjure up plenty of line breaks.

Round 1 predicted team

1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Enari Tuala
3. Dane Gagai
4. Bradman Best
5. Hymel Hunt
6. Jake Clifford
7. Adam Clune
8. David Klemmer
9. Chris Randall
10. Daniel Saifiti
11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Mitchell Barnett
14. Kurt Mann
15. Jacob Saifiti
16. Sauaso Sue
17. Brodie Jones

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Others: Phoenix Crossland, Bailey Hodgson, Jack Johns, Jacob Kiraz, Jirah Momoisea, Brayden Musgrove, Simi Sasagi, Pasami Saulo, Starford To’a, Dominic Young, Jayden Brailey

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