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Newcastle Knights 2012 preview

Gains: Darius Boyd (Dragons), Adam Cuthbertson (Dragons), Kade Snowden (Sharks), Timana Tahu (Panthers), Danny Buderus (Leeds), Robbie Rochow (Storm).

Losses: Mark Taufua (Sharks), Isaac De Gois (Sharks), Keith Lulia (Bradford), Steve Southern (Wakefield), Cameron Ciraldo (Panthers), Antonio Kaufusi (London Harlequins), Josh Ailaomai (Roosters), Adam MacDougall (retired), Ben Rogers (retired), Dan Tolar (retired).

Things have just got a whole lot more serious in Newcastle with the club that was built on the concept of community now owned by a billionaire mining magnate and one of Australian sport’s greatest ever coaches at the helm for the first of a four-year stint.

Nathan Tinkler’s swearing in by 97 per cent of Knights members last March gave the club something it had never before boasted; buying power. The first order of business was to lure Wayne Bennett up the F3 and with him followed superstar fullback Darius Boyd, the unquestionably talented Adam Cuthbertson and exciting prospect Alex McKinnon – all from the Dragons.

Two favourite sons have returned in Danny Buderus and Timana Tahu. Buderus is the exact type of footballer Bennett has loved to have in his squads for the past 25 years while the consensus is that Tahu will return to his devastating best under the master coach’s influence and being back in familiar surroundings.

In keeping with Tinkler’s mandate that the best Newcastle talent never need leave town again, Test prop Kade Snowden returns after four years at the Sharks, while youngsters Korbin Sims and Kyle O’Donnell, both of impressive rugby league pedigree, are expected to make their NRL debuts in 2012.

It’s all designed to maintain the club spirit that led to premierships in 1997 and 2001 but crucially with the financial clout to match any club in the competition.

How They’ll Play It: If anything, in recent years the Knights have been restricted by not having an obvious “go-to” man in game-defining moments. Without wanting to state the obvious, it’s an affliction that has beset the club ever since the departure of Andrew Johns.

The burden in recent years has most often been left to Kurt Gidley to carry but with the addition of Darius Boyd the Knights have attacking threats on both sides of the park. Having had such a hand in his development it’s hard to imagine that Bennett won’t use Boyd as almost a second five-eighth, his sweeping movements out behind either Gidley or Jarrod Mullen designed to open up opportunities for the outside men.

Akuila Uate trailed only Nathan Merritt and Ben Barba on the 2011 try-scoring list but with Mullen, Gidley and Boyd all taking on the line, the Fijian flyer may just be the major benefactor.

Expect HUGE Things From: Jarrod Mullen. It’s hard to believe that this season marks five years since Jarrod Mullen made his one and only State of Origin appearance for New South Wales. In four years since he has played five-eighth in 30 games and halfback in 53 and it appears he will be Bennett’s first choice No.7 to start 2012.

Following an impressive start to his career much was expected of Mullen and although he might not quite have met those expectations he has been one of the competition’s most effective playmakers over the past four years. He has ranked in the top 10 in the NRL for try assists in 2008 (20), 2009 (20) and 2010 (17) and played in excess of 20 games in each of those years.

The balance between feeding Gidley and Boyd and his own running game will be a delicate one but Mullen is the player Bennett will need to deliver the on-field structure that he is looking to instil.

Bonus Points: There is no more damaging runner in the game at present than Akuila Uate. He scored 12 tries in the Knights’ last seven games of 2012 but it was his four-try haul against the Rabbitohs in Round 26 that exemplified his attacking abilities. Quite simply, he looked like busting the defence wide open whenever he touched the ball; every tackler he charges towards knows they are in for one hell of a collision. He ranked No.1 in the NRL in tackle-breaks with 152, equal second in line-breaks (19) and fifth in total metres (3,340) so you can bet Bennett and his staff are working hard on finding ways to get Uate into the game at every opportunity.

They’re Really Going To Miss: You could argue that the work from Isaac De Gois out of dummy-half will be missed but when you replace him with one of the game’s best modern-day No.9s in Danny Buderus you have to wonder whether the Knights’ faithful will really notice a change. In his final year with the Leeds Rhinos in the English Super League Buderus scored six tries, registered five try assists, made 10 clean breaks and ran for 1,695 metres from 309 carries. In nine games fewer De Gois ran for 844 metres from 133 carries, scored one try and failed to register a try assist.

There was a decent amount of player turnover at the end of the 2011 season but just like at hooker, it appears the quality the Knights were able to attract more than matches the talent that walked out the door.

It’s Time To Deliver: The pressures of the NRL almost became too much for him two years ago but having rediscovered his mojo under Bennett at the Dragons in 2011 now is the time for Adam Cuthbertson to deliver on the promise he showed in his breakout year with Manly in 2007.

Cuthbertson was a key figure in the team’s charge to the Grand Final that year and twice started at prop, a position he seems headed for again five years later. He only started in four games of 19 appearances last year and while all of those were in the back row, Bennett’s use of him at prop during the trials suggests a return to the engine room. After spending four years at Manly to start his career, the Knights are now Cuthbertson’s fourth club in four years but he is determined to make a home in Newcastle and play his best football in the coming years. Whether he plays in the front or back row, at 27 years of age, now is the time for Cuthbertson to become the damaging forward he knows he can be.  

How’s Their Depth? More players left than arrived at Newcastle during the off-season but a quick glance at the players used during their trial matches augurs well for any injury worries or loss of form. Kiwi representatives Tafeaga Junior Sa’u and Evarn Tuimavave are in a dogfight for their positions with recruits Timana Tahu and Adam Cuthbertson respectively while the back row options for Bennett look particularly strong. Neville Costigan and Chris Houston could both conceivably push for a State of Origin recall with strong starts to the year while the hard-hitting, no-nonsense style of youngster Joel Edwards looks to be exactly the type of player Bennett likes having in his squad.

Zane Tetevano made a promising start to his NRL career with five games towards the end of 2011 and Zeb Taia got back on the park after recovering from a serious neck injury. Add to that roster the burgeoning talents of Alex McKinnon, Kyle O’Donnell and Korbin Sims and the Knights’ back-row rotation looks as strong as any.

Under-20s: If new coach Michael Crawley had his choice of players from those eligible to play under-20s for Newcastle this season then they would be expected to improve on their eighth-place finish in 2011. Alex McKinnon and Korbin Sims are among the most highly touted prospects in the game today but it appears likely they will spend more time playing NSW Cup – if not NRL – than Toyota Cup in 2012. Dubbo product Will Smith is expected to be an important figure in the halves in his third year of Toyota Cup football and establish an exciting combination with Api Pewhairangi. Chanel and Pat Mata’utia will be the targets out wide and Chad Redman the direction out of dummy-half. This is a team capable of being very, very good.

The Coach: Seven premierships, a winning percentage of 64 per cent from 633 first grade matches at the helm and every coaching award and recognition known to NRL coaches. You won’t find a Newcastle fan throughout the entire Hunter region who isn’t absolutely thrilled that Wayne Bennett is taking charge of their team for the next four years. Rick Stone did an admirable job to get the Knights to the Finals Series last year but your premiership credentials go to another stratosphere as soon as Mr Bennett walks through the club doors.

Fools will not be suffered nor tough decisions avoided in order for Newcastle to reach their potential. Whether that stance can help Bennett create history by becoming the first coach to guide three different clubs to premierships in his first year in Newcastle, however, may be beyond even the master coach.

Predicted Finish: We can see them pressing higher but we’ll give the new regime a little latitude – 7th.

Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The gun: Akuila Uate looks a great option for your back three, with his unmatched ability to break tackles and score tries from anywhere.
The dark horse: Alex McKinnon is available in the centres or back row, and is a Bennett pet project who scored well in cameos for the Origin-hit Dragons last year.

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