With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
It’s a hard life being a coach. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, you have to start all over again.
Just ask Adam O’Brien. The Knights boss might have been sacked if his side had lost to the Bulldogs at the start of July, but instead thrashed them 66-0, then went on a winning run that ended with a defeat in the second week of the finals.
From a bloke who could have lost his job with little fanfare, he was extended for another year and the toast of the town.
O’Brien knows that such vicissitudes are the lot of an NRL coach. He – and his backroom staff, which includes serial Super League winner Brian McDermott – know that triumph and disaster are imposters to be treated equally.
When the Knights were doing badly, they weren’t as bad as they looked. Ditto when they were doing well, they’ll have known that there was an element of the hot streak about it.
In 2024, differentiating the signal and the noise will lie at the heart of any success they have, so it’s worth going into what worked and what didn’t.
Firstly and most obviously, Kalyn Ponga’s return to form helped. Playing him at fullback helped too, which does at least fall slightly on the coach who either chose to shift him or acceded to the demands of his star by letting him cosplay as a five eighth, but either way, that has now been sorted.
Having such a good 1 unlocked both edges, which added vital points to a side that was already good at getting into attacking positions.
Their efficiency in good ball – i.e. how often they turned visits to the 20m zone into points – was generally pretty good throughout 2023, but suddenly, they were a huge threat from deep as well.
Sometimes, too, it just clicks – and that matters a lot more when you’re fundamentally an expansive attacking team, as the Knights are.
Completion rates are generally nonsense as long as you can hit a floor of around 73%, but for the horror run of two wins from nine prior to that Bulldogs win, Newcastle were beneath 67% in six of them.
In the other three, they won twice and lost the other, away in Brisbane, on the last play of the game. In the ten game winning streak that follows, they dipped below the magic 73% just once.
One can look at Souths, Cronulla or Manly – three other teams that back their wide men to get it done – and see similar patterns.
This cohesion matters for the Knights because it speaks to problems they might face in 2024 and 2025.
Their departures this year are Dom Young from a wing and Lachlan Fitzgibbon from the back row, and a few depth options like Kurt Mann, Lachlan Miller and Fa’amanu Brown.
Their arrivals do cover the immediate future: Will Pryce is a five eighth/fullback, Jack Cogger is a half, Tom Jenkins challenges on a wing, Kai Pearce-Paul slots straight in where Fitzgibbon was and Jed Cartwright plugs more backrow options.
It’s a bit more changeover than might be ideal, but it’s not the end of the world either. Where things get interesting is 2025.
Their November 1 crew is Bradman Best, Dane Gagai and Enari Tuala – so all their centres – plus Brodie Jones, another backrower, as well as two props in Jacob Saifiti and Mat Croker and a five eighth, Tyson Gamble.
Newcastle were about the fitth or sixth best team in the NRL in 2023, and sustainably so, with stats that backed up their league position.
Most years, 14 wins and a draw doesn’t make it as high as a home final – more typically it is seventh or eighth – and some years, when the comp is more equal, it doesn’t get you in at all.
In 2023 Souths, Parramatta and the Roosters massively underperformed and, realistically, might come back towards the top. Manly, too, had a lot of injuries and could do better. Standing still might be a lot harder than it looks in 2024.
What that means is that this is a time to strike for Newcastle. They have a 1 on top form, a 7 that is well ensconced in his role in Jackson Hastings.
They have a genuine threeway split from the 6 jumper, with either Gamble, tried and tested, or Pryce, as big a talent as any in the Super League over the last few years, or Cogger, who more than proved himself at Penrith last year.
The pack is pretty settled with the likes of Leo Thompson and Phoenix Crossland emerging as real talents, Jayden Brailey to return as a 9 option, a host of experienced stagers in Tyson Frizell, Jack Hetherington, Adam Elliott and the Saifiti twins, plus a genuine X factor in Pearce-Paul.
What they don’t have is a winger to replace Young. Currently it’ll be Tuala, new signing Tom Jenkins or youngster Krystian Mapapalangi, but none really fulfil the role that they need for their system.
Young was vital because his pure speed enabled the early shift, allowing the Knights to play from very narrow to very wide, a move that few teams could deal with, and his finishing ability turned a lot of close calls at the corner post into points.
Newcastle’s goal conversion rate was the second lowest in the NRL at 68.7%: a testament to how long they let Hastings kick before giving the job back to Ponga, but also how often they scored at the corners.
The Knights scored 121 tries in 2023, with Young and Marzhew getting 38% between them – which jumps to 50% if you include Bradman Best.
What Newcastle need, then, is someone as good a finisher as Young, with speed to match, but who also brings the same yardage that he
Unfortunately, the list of available wingers is a little problematic for O’Brien.
Bailey Simonsson is probably the fastest, but he’s been more of a centre at Parramatta and has never registered serious tryscoring numbers, with nine his most in one year.
A system change to Newcastle’s more expansive style might help, but it would be asking him to nearly triple his tally to pick up Young’s workload.
Sunia Turuva would certainly be an option. Penrith struggle to keep their best young talents and have a pipeline of outside back – so much that they let Jenkins leave to Newcastle already – so a move for the current Rookie of the Year might well make sense.
The Fiji international has proven himself out of the backfield, much like Marzhew on the other side, and could help reorientate the side to favour backline metres even more, if O’Brien wanted to shift the burden of attack elsewhere.
The true marquee, pure vibes, big time move though would be Josh Addo-Carr. The fastest man in the game is tied down to a contract at the Bulldogs, but it has been made abundantly clear that he can go if the opportunity arises and a trade can be made,
Newcastle might have the perfect makeweight. Jacob Saifiti is up at the end of the year and the Dogs are crying out for a frontrower, having lost all the muscle in their pack.
Swapping the Foxx, a winger they don’t need on a huge salary, for a rep level prop who may not choose to extend, would be a genius piece of business.
There’s hiccups, of course. Jacob has expressed a desire to stay with brother Daniel at his hometown club, though Newcastle could take that out of his hands by attempting to make a trade.
Addo-Carr has typically operated on the left, whereas Young preferred the right, though there’s no reason to suggest that the Foxx couldn’t switch – speed is speed after all – or, alternatively, that Marzhew, whose style doesn’t really affect which side he plays on, could go over.
The Dogs were linked to Daniel Saifiti earlier in the year – if you believe such things – and, much as Smart Signings cares not for rumours, there’s a lot of logic behind such a more.
Midseason it made little sense. Now, with Young gone and the Knights operating from a position of strength, they might be able to move someone from a position they have covered on, while picking up a superstar to make them a threat in the here and now.