The 2014 NRL pre-season is underway, so at NRL.com we're profiling each team's biggest strengths heading into the new season. Here are five reasons the Newcastle Knights could be premiers at the end of 2014.
1. Quality outside backs
The Knights boast one of the best backlines in the NRL, with terrific strike power out wide. Fiji sensation and former Kangaroo Akuila Uate is almost unstoppable in full flight, while James McManus is Mr Reliable on the opposite wing – great under the high ball and deserving of his NSW Blues call-up for the final game of the 2013 State of Origin series. Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua are two of the best young ball-running centres in the game and are both coming off breakout seasons, with Leilua also excelling for Samoa at the World Cup, while current Kangaroo Darius Boyd adds genuine class and experience at fullback. As well as scoring the bulk of the team's tries, the Knights speedsters were also a major reason Newcastle led the NRL in both kick-return metres and total metres gained in 2013.
2. Jarrod Mullen comes of age
Picked for New South Wales as a 20-year-old in 2007, Jarrod Mullen has endured a frustrating few seasons since then. The talented playmaker had struggled to live up to his obvious potential in previous years and couldn't match the impossible tag of being the "next Andrew Johns". But 2013 was the five-eighth's best season yet, with Mullen taking over the captaincy role late in the season in Kurt Gidley's absence and rivalling the league's best playmakers as the Knights charged into the finals. Mullen led the NRL in kick metres and was ranked fourth in the competition in try assists, with his combination with rapidly improving halfback Tyrone Roberts a key part of the team's success. Another strong season from Mullen could propel Newcastle to bigger and better things in 2014.
3. A back-to-basics pack
Once known for their razzle-dazzle style – which thrilled and infuriated fans in equal measure – the Knights have become a rock-solid safety-first team under Wayne Bennett. They kept it simple by ignoring offloads (they threw the fewest of any team last season) which helped them control possession to the extent that they boasted the best completion rate in the league and the second-fewest errors of all teams. Bennett drills into his team the value of controlling possession and territory, and with the team blessed with speed to burn out wide the forward pack's job is to keep things simple up the middle. Also, Willie Mason has been a revelation in his return to the NRL, and Newcastle should get more value next season out of fellow big man Kade Snowden (who was suspended for their finals campaign) along with hulking Warriors recruit Russell Packer. Don't expect any dramatic change in tactics from the Knights' big men next time around.
The recruitment of back-row hard men Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith paid off handsomely in the 2013 finals series, with the pair becoming standouts for Newcastle in the toughest period of the year. Scott and Smith helped the Knights become the most miserly defensive team outside the top four last season, a significant improvement on a club that used to leak points on a regular basis in years gone by. The team will lose the leadership in defence of retired great Danny Buderus but a fit-again Kurt Gidley should play a similar role at hooker, while Chris Houston and Robbie Rochow are another two hard-working tacklers in the back row.
5. The Bennett factor
After a slow start in his first season in charge at the club, Wayne Bennett really started to make this team his own last season. There were shades of the 2010 Dragons in Newcastle's performances last campaign – with a priority placed on winning the territorial battle, on the back of a forward pack that keeps it simple and a long-kicking five-eighth, and the tries coming from outside backs and a swooping Darius Boyd. The best motivator in the business helped engineer a shock win over the Storm in Melbourne in the semi-finals and has a team with renewed confidence at his disposal next season. Two years ago the team was burdened by the expectation that Bennett's reputation (and Nathan Tinkler's money) brought to the club, but in 2014 they'll be playing with the self-assurance that they're capable of beating anyone on their day.