Matt Encarnacion, NRL.com
Knights forward Alex McKinnon says reaching last year’s preliminary final has set the bar for the Novocastrians in 2014 and that anything less than a top-four finish will be deemed a failure.
Newcastle came from the clouds last year to finish one game short of a dream grand final for departing legend Danny Buderus, ambushing 2012 grand finalists Canterbury-Bankstown in their elimination final before upsetting defending premiers Melbourne at home a week later.
Their fairytale run was halted by eventual champions Sydney Roosters but McKinnon believes there is no reason why they shouldn’t be considered genuine premiership contenders in 2014.
“We just scraped into the eight, but we gave it a bit of a crack and got on a bit of a roll,” McKinnon told NRL.com.
“We do believe that we should be a top-four team. The results last year showed – we beat every team in that top eight and we only dropped games because we weren’t concentrating.”
Newcastle, who were one of the last teams to return to training this summer, weren’t major players in free agency this year, only adding the likes of ex-Raiders utility Mick Dobson and welcoming home former Knight Clint Newton.
The future of Warriors recruit Russell Packer remains clouded after the NRL refused to register his new contract last week.
He is due to appear in court on January 6, having been charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm during at an alleged incident in Sydney earlier this month.
But Wayne Bennett’s starting side remains largely intact from the one that was booted out by the Roosters, and McKinnon considers that to be their biggest strength heading into the new season.
“It’s only my third year in the comp but I’ve never experienced a team as this one, with the same people in it,” he said.
“The first year at the Knights, a lot of people went. A lot of changes were made last year too, but by the end of last year we had the same team and everyone’s sticking around for this year again.
“It’s always a good feeling when you can trust the person you’re playing with. Trust is a massive thing which we’ll get out of having the same team every round.”
Role players Kevin Naiqama, Craig Gower, Peter Mata’utia and Neville Costigan have all moved on, but it is the retirement of Buderus that will leave the biggest hole to fill.
McKinnon says recovering skipper Kurt Gidley would be the perfect replacement in the No.9, but said there were others that could adequately do the job.
“Kurt’s about three months away before he’s back running. He’s a great person to have around the club, and you can’t help but feel bad for his injuries,” McKinnon said.
“But I know how he fit he is and how much of a competitor he is and I’m sure he’ll be back better than ever... 100 per cent he could fit in Bedsy’s shoes, he just needs to get his foot right and I’m sure he’s doing everything possible to do that.
“Losing Bedsy is big, but we’ve got some other good hookers there in Travis Waddell and young Adam Clydsdale.”