NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS - 2009 Season Preview

<p>THE Knights have never made a finals series without Andrew Johns this millennium and now two years on from his retirement, the question remains: Can the proud club overcome its demons? </p><p> With champion hooker and skipper Danny Buderus having departed for the English Super League, the task at hand looks even more difficult.</p><p> And with heavy pressure building on coach Brian Smith for success in 2009, many players will find themselves playing for their futures.</p><p> <strong>How They’ll Play It</strong></p> Just how Brian Smith will approach 2009 is anyone’s guess. But with the introduction of two referees and the acquisition of arguably 2008’s form hooker, Isaac De Gois, look for Smith to employ a largely dummy-half based approach to his attack.</p><p> With former Souths livewire George Ndaira also on the books and the speed of Kurt Gidley around the ruck, there are plenty of metres to be made up the middle of the field for the Knights.</p><p> Better yet, they’ve got the outside brilliance in players like Akuila Uate and James McManus to convert breaks into points. And with a fit, young side, they should benefit significantly from the predicted faster play-the-balls in defence.</p><p> <strong>Keep An Eye On</strong></p> Kurt Gidley. Okay, so it might seem like an obvious choice, but Gidley will carry a load on his shoulders this year heavier than any of his predecessors as captain.</p><p> He had a taste of it last year when he played four positions in one match against the Panthers, and won Newcastle the game, but just how the 26-year-old handles the pressure on a full-time basis with his Blues’ and Kangaroos’ commitments will be a real test of his character.</p><p> It will also dictate how the successful the Knights are. He’s the most experienced playmaker the club has and reeks of individual brilliance, making him the key to their success.</p><p> <strong>They’ll Really Miss</strong></p> No secret here – Danny Buderus has been the heart and soul of the club for the best part of a decade and his experience, skill, endurance and leadership will be missed as much, if not more so, than Andrew Johns’. </p><p> Buderus’ ability to play through severe pain and inspire a side was second to none, and how the side deals with the departure of the former Australian and Blues skipper remains to be seen.</p><p> Expect to see a more structured style of play than the Buderus-inspired off-the-cuff method. This could be a good thing, or it could play into oppositions’ hands.</p><p> <strong>It’s Time To Stand Up</strong></p> A premiership-winner with the Storm in 2007, Ben Cross was set to be a vital part of the Knights’ plans in 2008 but played just nine games after a string of hand and leg injuries.</p><p> A NSW Origin prop, Cross staying on the park is vital not only to the young forward pack’s momentum, but the Knights’ 2009 success. </p><p> No Cross could spell more misery for a Knights side already heavily depleted in the forwards stocks, with Chris Bailey, Jesse Royal and Danny Buderus no longer with the club.</p><p> <strong>Coach Watch</strong></p> After Matthew Elliott, Brian Smith is under more pressure than any other coach in the NRL to retain his job. In his third year at the helm of the Newcastle club and after a mass player clean-out in 2007, Smith is yet to deliver on his promise of securing the club a finals berth. </p><p> And if he can’t inspire a top-four finish for the club this season, word from the Newcastle camp is he’ll be out of a job in 2010. He may need to settle on a top squad this season rather than mixing and matching every round if the young side is to be any chance of achieving the lofty expectations of its fan base.</p><p> <strong>They’re All The Better For</strong></p> The back end of last season and some promising early trial form. Faced with the daunting task of overcoming the Storm in the final round of 2008, and without Danny Buderus, young playmaker Jarrod Mullen stood tall and guided the side to an unlikely win.</p><p> A one-time Blues halfback in 2007, Mullen overcame a string of leg injuries to show glimpses of his potential late last season in the absence of Buderus. Such confidence will do him and the team a world of good.</p><p> <strong>Predicted Finish</strong></p> The club possesses a lot of young talent out wide, but depth is a major issue up front. </p><p> Should injuries strike key go-forward men Cross and Simpson again in 2009, the Knights could be left clutching at straws.</p><p> Likely to challenge for the eight but expect to see them just miss out – 9th.</p><p> <strong>Under-20s</strong></p> With a new coach in Rohan Smith, son of first grade coach Brian, the Knights’ Toyota Cup side will be more closely aligned with the top squad this season.</p><p> With a plethora of talent to call on in the Hunter region, there’s no reason the side can’t be successful in 2009. However, much will depend on the relatively untried skills of the new coach. That and player attitude, after winning just eight of 24 games last season. </p><p> Individual-wise, big things are expected from hulking 18-year-old Peter Mata’utia who will use his 95 kilograms to full advantage either on the wing, at fullback or in the centres.</p><p> <strong>New Breed</strong></p> The Knights have high hopes for 18-year-old former Australian Schoolboys representative, Peter Mata’utia, who may well get a run at fullback – or perhaps in the centres or on the wing – in the NRL before the ’09 season fades to black.</p><p> Keep an eye out for more on Peter Mata’utia when NRL.com brings you New Breed profiles in the coming weeks.</p>