Nigel Wall , NRL.com
1. No wane from Bennett
The modern era supercoach arrives in Newcastle looking for a new challenge after winning six premierships with Brisbane and one with St George Illawarra, sandwiched in the middle of his most recent three-year stint. This is Bennett’s 25th year as a first grade head coach; accordingly it’s safe to assume he’ll have his eyes on the silverware in his inaugural year in the Hunter. Given his incredible record only a fool would discount the Knights from being a chance at pressing deep into this year’s semi-finals series.
Bennett has a premiership coaching record of 633 games comprising 403 wins, 215 losses and 13 draws for a winning percentage of 63.6. If this time-weathered average holds true and the Knights win 63 per cent of their games in 2012, they’ll finish on 34 points and hot contenders for the top four. And expect them to jump out of the blocks – only once this millennium (2007) has a Bennett-led squad had a negative record after the opening 10 rounds. That means Knights fans can expect a quantum leap from the past two seasons when the side won just four of their opening 10 games each year.
2. All-out attack
Darius Boyd’s arrival could elevate the Knights’ already impressive attacking platform into the best in the NRL. Last year, when they squeezed into the top eight on points differential, Newcastle led the competition for line-breaks (nudging five a game) and tackle-breaks (average 40.6) and were second only to the Dragons for total territory gained each week (1396 metres). And while others may have played with more flair, it should be noted the Knights were the only side to score 40 points on four separate occasions. Now add Darius Boyd, who loves nothing more than targeting the wide open spaces on the edge of the field. His linking with Wes Naiqama, Junior Sa’u and (especially) Akuila Uate – not to mention fringe runners Neville Costigan and Chris Houston – will usher catastrophe for defences. In Boyd’s three seasons at the Dragons their centres and wingers combined for a staggering 156 tries – behind only current premiers Manly as most prevalent. Meanwhile Uate ranked No.1 for tackle busts (148) and third for line-breaks last season (18), while Sa’u and Naiqama added 10 and 11 line-breaks respectively.
3. Hunter pride
Nathan Tinkler is ticking all the boxes in his efforts to restore Newcastle’s NRL superpower status. Crucial to that plan is crowd support, and already they’re on track. Don’t be surprised if the Knights usurp the Bulldogs as the team with the second-biggest home crowd support (behind the untouchable Broncos): last season, on the way to a 7-5 record at Ausgrid Stadium, the Knights built a 19,186 home-crowd average, just a few hundred fans short of the Bulldogs’ mark. Given the optimism, hoopla and vibe accompanying the new coach and playing roster, they’ll be disappointed if they don’t crack the 20,000 mark. Even in lean times and shocking weather they’ve been a well-supported team – only twice in their past 180 games (dating back to 1997) have they played before a crowd of less than 10,000. It’s going to be a long trip home down – or even up – the F3 for plenty of teams.
4. The new boys
Bennett’s plotting and influence is clear given their selective clean-out and subsequent outstanding recruitment. Hooker Isaac De Gois makes way for one of Newcastle’s most-famous sons Danny Buderus, who ‘retired’ from the NRL in 2008 and spent the past three seasons in England. Luring back former Kangaroo Buderus, who turned 34 last Monday, is a masterstroke: he’ll galvanise the player unit and his experience, direction and guile will be invaluable. But securing Boyd is the coup: skipper Kurt Gidley has been torn between positions over the past few seasons, filling in where the team needed him – mostly at fullback. With a specialist, high impact No.1 on the books Gidley will slip back to five-eighth, where he spent his formative years outside Andrew Johns. It’s where he’ll be most potent: last year he contributed 10 try assists – but four of those came during his seven games in the No.6. The club has also invested in prime tall timber [see below] which will see their pack on the front foot. Alex McKinnon looks like a classic Bennett pet project. The 20-year-old, a strapping centre/back-rower who scored two tries in his first grade debut for the Dragons last year, will become a star under Bennett’s tutelage. And obviously Bennett thinks Timana Tahu still has something to offer.
5. Big, skilled engine room
The Knights largely have their speedy backs to thank for their go-forward in recent years; certainly it’s been a while since they had a powerhouse up front. Which makes local junior Kade Snowden’s return all the more exciting: over the past three seasons Snowden averaged 113 metres and made 23 tackles a game. Last year Evarn Tuimavave’s 92 metres were the most by a Knights forward each week – and the last season a Knights prop averaged triple figures for metres was 2008 when Ben Cross ground out 110. Snowden’s aggression will be complemented by Adam Cuthbertson’s skill. Cuthbertson revived his flagging career to become an integral member of the Dragons’ 17 last year and his offloading talents (40 from 19 games) and defence (21 tackles in average 40 minutes) will be valued off the bench. His ball skills will add a crucial second-phase element, given the Knights ranked a modest 11th for offloads in 2011 – with their leading exponent Evarn Tuimavave adding just 25. Newcastle weren’t that far off being an elite team in 2011: eight of their 13 losses were by 10 points or less. With Bennett on board, elite status is back in their sights.