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Knights 2013 Season Preview

Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com Mon, Feb 25, 2013 - 11:30 AM
Gains: Beau Scott (Dragons), Toka Likiliki (Warriors), David Fa’alogo (Huddersfield), Jeremy Smith (Sharks), Mitchell Frei (Broncos), Anthony Quinn (Storm).

Losses: Zeb Taia (Catalans Dragons), Wes Naiqama (Panthers), Kyle O’Donnell (Panthers), Joel Edwards (Raiders), Evarn Tuimavave (Hull KR), Junior Sa’u (Storm), Sam Anderson (Panthers), Ethan Cook (Panthers), Kurt Mann (Storm).

Slowly but surely, coach Wayne Bennett’s influence is transforming the Newcastle Knights of old into modern-day premiership heavyweights. At least, that’s what the master coach wants us to believe after his first season at the club failed to meet the great expectations many experts – including the bookmakers – had placed on the team in 2012. 

Ranked on the third line of betting behind the Storm and Sea Eagles before kick-off last season, the Knights and their fans experienced a rollercoaster ride of fortunes that ultimately ended in disappointment and a 12th-place finish. They didn’t even record consecutive victories until Round 17 and won just five matches at home all season.

Bennett, however, was never overly confident of success in his first year coaching mining magnate Nathan Tinkler’s latest sporting interest. He maintained the team was a “work in progress” – even when some were predicting a premiership trophy would be riding shotgun up the F3 alongside his team after the 2012 grand final. Expectations, however, were lowered significantly just eight rounds in – a season-ending shoulder injury to key playmaker and captain Kurt Gidley, as Bennett reflected, was always going to be too tough to overcome. 

This season, however, Bennett’s brigade has a decidedly different look. The master coach has recruited – and released – a raft of players for 2013. Now, it seems, he’s becoming more comfortable and confident with the line-up – and why wouldn’t you be with the acquisitions of representative forwards Jeremy Smith, Beau Scott and David Fa’alogo? Throw in a fit Gidley and other stars including Danny Buderus, Darius Boyd, Aku Uate, Timana Tahu and Jarrod Mullen, and it’s a line-up that will challenge the best teams in the comp.

Expectations are rising once again.

How They’ll Play It
The Knights now possess one of the most formidable and aggressive forward packs in the competition – one Wayne Bennett no doubt expects to lead from the front and lay a platform for his exciting and elusive backs. 

Last year the Newcastle team averaged a mediocre 1348.6 metres per game (11th in the league) and 8.5 offloads per game (last in the competition) – expect recruits Smith and Scott to drastically improve these statistics. Bennett expects his forwards to lay a creative foundation for his halves – just like he trained them to in his successful stints at the Broncos and the Dragons – and when they do, his backs can run riot.
 
Mullen and Gidley can spin plenty of ball wide to elusive backline threats like Uate, Tahu and Boyd. An expansive attacking game suits the Knights best – it was the impetus for five wins from Rounds 16 to 21 last season – and it is what their fans will expect to see in 2013 from the kick-off.

Expect HUGE Things From
Last year Jarrod Mullen shouldered the majority of the Knights’ attacking load in the absence of star playmaker Kurt Gidley. This year, however, ‘Gids’ is back and former Blues representative Mullen can really release the attacking shackles. 

In 2012, Mullen helped his side to an admirable sixth-most line-breaks (4.5 per game), and that was alongside inexperienced half Tyrone Roberts. While the fill-in No.7 grasped his opportunity in Gidley’s absence, Mullen will relish playing alongside a veteran like Gidley who can take over man-management tasks. With the captain organising who is expected where, Mullen can play the off-the-cuff style of football that suits him best – and challenge the opposition through his running, passing and kicking games. 

He recorded a total of 25 line-breaks, line-break assists and try assists in 2012 – expect that number to go even higher this season without the extra responsibility Gidley’s absence thrust upon his shoulders.

Bonus Points
In Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott, the Knights have two tough-as-nails, incredibly competitive premiership-winning forwards… and a wealth of experience. If a star like Gidley goes down again early in the season, there’s now a larger leadership core that can help lead the squad and steer the team out of trouble. 

The experience the club gained last year in Gidley’s absence – especially promising young half Tyrone Roberts – will hold the Knights in great stead for 2013, too. 

The Question Mark
Willie or won’t he make Origin? The form Willie Mason showed towards the end of last season had people talking – and plenty of experts eating their words. Overlooked by the Tigers, who at one stage considered throwing him a career lifeline but declined based on potential off-field issues, Mason signed with the Knights on an incentive-based contract a third of the way through 2012, playing 17 matches all up. Averaging almost 90 metres per game, Mason again proved a handful for opponents, his form rewarded with the Knights Coaches’ Award at the end of the 2012 season. 

Perhaps his best quality, though, is his ability to unite a playing group – something that could be of benefit to the confidence-starved Blues. A strong start to the season will put him in selectors’ sights once again… and give the Knights the go-forward and up-front grunt they need to dominate their opposition.

Who Needs To Lift?
Was there a bigger disappointment in 2012 than the form of Kade Snowden? The former Shark returned home to Newcastle on a big-money deal orchestrated by club owner Nathan Tinkler. He’s played anything but a starring role since his arrival, though. 

The lack of intensity in his runs in particular – highlighted by just 26 tackle-breaks in 19 games – and his overall impact in the middle of the field left a lot to be desired (he missed a whopping 53 tackles in limited time on the park, too). 

The man labelled a “beast with ball skills” by former Newcastle coach Brian Smith will be desperate to prove his value this season.

How’s Their Depth?
The Knights’ core group of star first-graders is strong – any club with a playing roster featuring Gidley, Mullen, Buderus, Mason, Smith, Tahu, Uate, Boyd, Snowden and Scott will perform admirably. It is the dearth of second-string talent, though, that will cause concern for Newcastle supporters – the Knights’ top squad features half-a-dozen players who spent the majority of their 2012 season playing in competitions other than the NRL, most notably the NSW Cup. The difference in experience and ability between those two levels of player could prove problematic for Bennett.

Dream Team Bankers
Newcastle back-rower Chris Houston is an astute purchase for Dream Team coaches – he mightn’t have the reputation of Jeremy Smith, Beau Scott or Kade Snowden, but the qualified school teacher’s work ethic and attacking ability make him an excellent buy. Last season’s Knights Player of the Year, Houston also led the team for average fantasy points per game (47) and is a reliable buy at a reasonable price ($369,800).  

The Coach
It’s difficult to ever imagine Wayne Bennett – the godfather of Australian rugby league coaching – ever under pressure to keep his job, but if the Knights crumble this season he’ll be forced to face the music. Tinkler has funded Bennett’s sizeable spending spree, and there’s no doubt he expects results... or he’ll start asking questions. 

Under-20s
Theme park Wet ’N’ Wild couldn’t match the slide the Newcastle under-20s experienced in 2012. At one stage the Knights sat pretty with just three losses through 14 matches… but that was before the wheels fell off, the horse bolted and the Newcastle coaching staff and players were left scratching their heads wondering what went wrong.
 
The Knights finished last season in 11th place with 11 wins and a draw, scoring 642 points and conceding just 556. This season Newcastle won’t have the line-busting, try-scoring talents of Chanel Mata’utia, either – last year’s leading four-point fiend has graduated from the under-20s competition and will play senior footy. 

Hooker Adam Clydesdale is one to watch – he won Player of the Year and Players’ Player last year – as is Khaele Bowen, nephew of Cowboy Matt. Also an outside back, Khaele, a former Queensland Schoolboys rugby rep, was sidelined with injury for most of last season. 

Predicted Finish
Things can only get better for the Knights in their second year under Bennett. With a couple of classy additions and a year of experience without ‘Captain Kurt’, Newcastle fans rightfully believe the bar will be lifted this season. They have enough talent to challenge the best teams in the comp. Predicted finish: bottom half of the eight.