Season Preview: Newcastle Knights

THE Knights have one stand-out marquee player in Kurt Gidley, a couple of borderline rep players, and a host of no-nonsense first-graders. It’s a handy squad and they’ll always get healthy support from the locals. But with Gidley out for possibly the opening month and Danny Wicks out possibly forever, the bookies won’t be reeling them in from 33-1 any time soon.<br><br>Gidley is one of the game’s best.&nbsp; But it’s a big ask being captain, play-maker, try-scorer, bomb-defuser, defensive-line organiser and beating heart. He can do it, sure. He’s done it before. But with the captain appearing increasingly injury-prone – not to mention his absence during Origin – it’s Gidley’s support crew who will make or break the Knights’ 2010 season.<br><br>On paper they have some fine players. Steve Simpson has flicked representative footy to give his all for the club. Ben Cross is an experienced prop who’ll enforce his patch. Halfback Jarrod Mullen, 23 in April, is now into his sixth season with the Knights and will be looking to reprise the form that saw him in a Blues jumper in ’07. (Knights fans would also be happy if can reprise his form of 1994 when he scored 86 tries in a season as he did for Taree Panthers’ Under-7s). <br><br>The rest? These are good, solid first-grade rugby league players without being geniuses. There’s some fast ones (Keith Lulia, Wes Naiqama, Akuila Uate), some hard chargers (Junior Sau, Richie Fa’aoso, Cooper Vuna) and players who’ll tackle all day (“Waltzing” Matt Hilder). Adam “Mad Dog” MacDougall will again provide starch and straight-running out wide but is going on 35 and debuted for the Roosters a year after Mullen scored all those tries for the Panthers.<br><br>Newcastle will win some, lose some, and play hard-headed footy. But it’s a long stretch to see their name engraved on the 2010 Telstra Premiership trophy. <br><b><br>Their Keys To Success…</b> When he’s back in action Gidley will pop up at fullback, five-eighth or first receiver depending on where the Knights are on the scoreboard and how hot the sometimes cold Scott Dureau is going off the bench. How Mullen goes in the no.6 will also determine where Gidley is stationed.<br><br>In the forwards the excellent rake Isaac De Gois will look to cement his place as one of rep footy’s hookers-in-waiting. His sympathetic balls from the ruck regularly hit his hard chargers on the chest and on the run, while his sniping out of dummy-half keeps opposition’s guessing. A good player.<br><br>In Gidley and Mullen they have creative play-makers with pace. They’re a fine combination, wherever Gidley slots in. Their chip-kick punts to the corners will result in tries for Naiqama, Uate and the high-flying James McManus, another who’ll want to put his name before rep selectors once again.<br><br>Otherwise the Knights will keep it simple. They have a host of players who could be centres or back-rowers. They’ve got props who’ll run at walls and tacklers who do it for fun. And a pair of rep play-makers.<br><br>But they aren’t going to win this puppy.<br><b><br>Expect Plenty From…</b> The Fiji Times described Akuila Uate as “The Next Tuqiri” – but he’s more like another Fijian, the Canberra Raiders iron man of the ’90s, Noa Nadruku. Both hit the line wanting to bust it. Both are/were quick and rangy and can/could step.&nbsp; And both play/played a hard-bodied and fearless brand of footy that is/was exciting to watch. Uate – who goes by the various nicknames “Aku”, “the Eagle”, “Wati”, “Aquila” and “Fijian Flyer” – is 22 years old and is now in his third season of professional, first-grade rugby league. Watch him go in 2010.<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss…</b> Danny Wicks’ off-field dramas have been well-publicised. What’s been less discussed is how the team will miss the dynamic 110kg back row forward with the runaway tries, backward somersaults and cult-hero status.&nbsp; They don’t make many like Wicks – and the Knights culd really do with one. <br><br><b>Time To Stand Up…</b> With Gidley out for a month or two (depending who you ask) Scott Dureau will be driving his team’s fortunes to a larger extent than he’s been asked to in the past. Good player, S. Dureau. But he’s yet to show how good.<br><br><b>Coach Watch…</b> Born-’n’-bred Novocastrian Rick Stone took up the job in May of last season after Brian Smith signed with the Roosters and will have this season and probably the next one to produce a couple of top-8 finishes with a squad he’s inherited. He doesn’t do that, and the Knights will eat their own.<br><b><br>They’re All The Better For…</b> Securing Evarn Tuimavave. The 25-year-old played 101 games for the Warriors without ever setting Mt Smart on fire. Injury dogged his eight seasons with the club. But Tuimavave, who made his Test debut for the Kiwis against England in the 2008 World Cup, should relish playing with fellow Kiwis Junior Sau, Cooper Vuna and Marvin Karawana.<br><b><br>Predicted Finish…</b> Hard to see them achieving any great degree of consistency during the year. They’ll be hit and miss. We’ll say around 11th spot.<br><br><b>Toyota Cup…</b> After outstanding performances in New Zealand Maori age-group competition, the Knights signed 17-year-old Dale Verstappen from the Turangawaewae Rugby League Club in Ngaruawahia, Waikato. While the prop/second-rower is going to have a hard time telling his team-mates how to pronounce let alone spell his home town and footy club, Verstappen should be a popular recruit. On hearing Newcastle had signed him he said: “I was pretty happy, eh, I was stoked as.” Good luck to him.