Up until mid-February this year, the Knights' progress under Wayne Bennett had been steady. After the hype of the master coach's arrival (and new owner Nathan Tinkler's cash injection), Newcastle slumped to a disappointing 12th-place finish in 2012 – the club's worst in five years – in Bennett's first season at the club. That anti-climax took the pressure off for 2013, when Newcastle flew under the radar, made the eight, stunned Melbourne in the knockout stages and fell just one game short of the grand final.
With a settled squad and a new-found confidence, bolstered by a no-nonsense forward pack and one of the NRL's most talented young backlines, things were looking up for 2014. The Knights were among the favourites for February's Auckland Nines tournament, and were living up to that billing up until the moment Jarrod Mullen's left hamstring gave way. The star five-eighth had already scored one try in the team's quarter-final against Brisbane when he busted the line before dropping to the turf, with scans later revealing he had torn his hamstring from the bone.
The injury rules Mullen out for three to four months in a major blow to Newcastle's chances of competing with the NRL's best in the first half of the season. Without the team's chief playmaker, the Knights will be more reliant on injury-prone skipper Kurt Gidley than ever.
After their strong recruiting drive of recent years Newcastle have had a fairly quiet off-season, punctuated by the signing and sacking of former Warriors problem child Russell Packer. Veteran back-rower Clint Newton returns to the club following his stint at Penrith while former Raider Michael Dobson is back from the Super League and could get his chance in the halves sooner rather than later. The biggest move of their off-season is the retirement of club great Danny Buderus.
Gains: Clint Newton (Panthers), Michael Dobson (Hull Kingston Rovers).
Losses: Danny Buderus (retired), Neville Costigan (Hull Kingston Rovers), Kevin Naiqama (Panthers), Peter Mata'utia (Dragons), Siuatonga Likiliki (Titans), Will Smith (Panthers).
How They'll Play It
Last season Bennett turned the Knights into a replica of his successful St George Illawarra outfit: a safety-first attacking game that earned Newcastle the best completion rate in the NRL but the fewest offloads; a quality long-kicking game (Jarrod Mullen topped the NRL's kick metres last season, a statistic Jamie Soward dominated during Bennett's time at the Dragons); a rapidly improving defence; and a penchant for using Darius Boyd in sweeping backline moves down the left flank.
More of the same can be expected this year, although without Mullen's kicking game Bennett could be forced to adjust his plans a little. Certainly the team is capable of showing more flair in attack, with Tyrone Roberts, Dane Gagai, Joseph Leilua, Akuila Uate and Boyd all capable of creating something out of nothing. But even so, don't expect to see the Knights matching the Warriors for free-flowing razzle dazzle at the start of the season.
Expect a HUGE Year From
Halfback Tyrone Roberts has enjoyed three seasons of steady progress and is now ready to shoulder the responsibility of guiding the Knights around the park. After making seven cameo appearances for Newcastle in 2011 and then 18 in Bennett's first year at the club in 2012, Roberts was the only Knight to play all 27 games for the club last season. He led the team for offloads and ranked third for try assists behind Mullen and Boyd, but this year will be expected to break open opposition defences more often. With Mullen gone the role of the club's chief playmaker is there for the taking, and the 23-year-old has the talent and now the experience to make the step up.
The Question Marks
How will Bennett solve his halves conundrum after Mullen's injury? Roberts has a lock on one spot but after that the club has several options. Michael Dobson has been recruited for 2014 as a back-up half so seems to fit the bill, but is the former Raider up to the task of a Round 1 start following several years in the Super League? Kurt Gidley is a former halfback and could slot back into a playmaker role but had been groomed as Danny Buderus's replacement at hooker this season. If Gidley was to shift back to the halves, who gets the nod at hooker – journeyman Travis Waddell, utility Matt Hilder, or untried youngster Adam Clydsdale? Bennett even tried Darius Boyd at pivot in Newcastle's final trial game, with Dane Gagai shifting to fullback and youngster Pat Mata'utia coming into the side at centre. The 'spine' of fullback, halfback, five-eighth and hooker is crucial in modern rugby league, so this is a question that Bennett will need to get right if Newcastle are to make a strong start to the year without Mullen.
Who Needs To Lift?
Kurt Gidley always makes an impact when he's on the field for the Knights – it's just that he's spending less and less time on the field these days. The former NSW captain has averaged just 13.25 games a season for Newcastle in the past four years, due to a succession of knee, shoulder and ankle injuries. With Mullen already a long-term casualty for the season and Buderus no longer at the club, the Knights need and fit and firing Gidley now more than ever.
How's Their Depth?
The club has lost some genuine experience with the departures of Buderus and Neville Costigan, as well as the natural talent of young guns Kevin Naiqama and Peter Mata'utia, but the success of speedster Jake Mamo at the Auckland Nines and goalkicking winger Josh Mantellato for Italy at the World Cup shows there is still depth in the outside backs in particular.
Mamo was a star of an otherwise disappointing under-20s side last year, with the club finishing 12th in the Holden Cup, but the Knights NSW Cup squad impressed by finishing second in the regular season. Mantellato topped the point-scoring charts in that competition and is ready to step up to the top grade should Boyd, Uate or James McManus be sidelined. The front row remains an area in which the Knights could do with an extra player or two, although Korbin Sims could be ready to make the step up in 2014.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
Mullen ($391,400) would normally be the safest bet for high-scoring Knights Fantasy players, but his absence could create a chance for bargains like Michael Dobson ($110,700) or Adam Clydsdale ($117,800). Elsewhere, Dane Gagai ($196,700) is a dangerous attacking centre coming off a fairly quiet 2013 campaign in which he crossed for only five tries, meaning he starts at a generous price at the start of Holden NRL Fantasy in 2014.
Wayne Bennett has managed to do the impossible in his time as a rugby league coach. He won six premierships during his time at the Brisbane Broncos, took chronic underachievers the St George Illawarra Dragons to its first title as a joint venture, and even helped engineer a World Cup win for New Zealand against the mighty Kangaroos. He's also coached Australia and Queensland himself, and is arguably the best coach in the game. If anybody can orchestrate an unlikely premiership run for this good-but-not-great Knights team – against fierce competition from NRL powerhouses the Storm, Sea Eagles, Roosters and Rabbitohs – it's Bennett.
Last season's preliminary finals appearance felt like an overachievement for Newcastle, and a place in the final four is something most Knights fans would gladly accept in 2014. More likely – especially following Mullen's injury – is a battle to make the top eight, with the "big four" of Melbourne, Manly, South Sydney and the Roosters still looking strong and other clubs having strengthened in the off-season. They have the talent to cause some destruction come finals time, but they'll need to play their way into the playoffs first. We'll predict a finish between seventh and ninth.
1. Darius Boyd, 2. James McManus, 3. Dane Gagai, 4. Joey Leilua, 5. Akuila Uate, 6. Jarrod Mullen, 7. Tyrone Roberts, 8. Kade Snowden, 9. Kurt Gidley, 10. Willie Mason, 11. Beau Scott, 12. Robbie Rochow, 13. Chris Houston. Interchange: 14. Jeremy Smith, 15. Alex McKinnon, 16. Korbin Sims, 17. Adam Clydsdale.