2011 Season Preview: Newcastle Knights
ONCE again the Knights have had plenty happening in their off-season – but at least this year it appears the happenings have the potential to be positive. Wealthy mining magnate Nathan Tinkler’s on-again, off-again takeover bids looks like a potential saviour for Newcastle and could have the hard-working area pumping with a bankrolled team to envy well into the future.
However, the only way that will eventuate is if there’s a total overhaul at board level – and that will only happen through an extraordinary general meeting and the voice of ‘people power’ – watch this space.
Millionaire Tinkler’s most recent bold statement was to throw a huge deal local junior Kade Snowden’s way – it was enough to leave the Sharks prop stuck in a career holding pattern as he stopped short of announcing his re-signing with Cronulla in mid-February.
It’s at least a long cry from last year’s drugs-tarnished pre-season where the side lost two top players for the year. Oddly enough Chris Houston is once again in the headlines but this time it comes as a relief as he returns to the squad. On this basis they are already ahead – and it’s where they want to be after missing the finals last year.
The Knights don’t shape as among the strongest sides on paper but they have recruited some much-touted younger players to go with premiership winner Neville Costigan. It’s enough to earn them the tag of ‘smokies’.
How They’ll Play It… In typical Novocastrian fashion: they’ll fight and scrap for every metre and then hope some flashes of Kurt Gidley and Akuila Uate brilliance can land them some points.
Newcastle get by on a never-give-up spirit and if they can hang in the battle they just might jag a few more games than they lose. The likes of Houston and Cory Paterson will need big years and the duo will need to add some second-phase play to the Knights’ game plan. While the team can’t afford to make too many mistakes they are at their best when the forwards are popping passes and catching defenders back-pedalling. Striking a balance with risk-and-reward footy is tough but for the Knights to flourish, they must achieve it.
Expect Plenty From… The obvious here is Akuila Uate. The excitement-machine winger is on track to become a strike weapon for New South Wales in the Origin arena should he continue his rise. In 2010 the barnstorming Uate led the league with 21 tries and 29 line-breaks.
Chris Houston is another to expect plenty from. After a year off he will no doubt be a little rusty but as the weeks go by he’ll have plenty to prove.
As for some young guns – remember the names Siuatonga Likiliki, Beau Henry and Kyle O’Donnell. All have tremendous raps coming from other clubs and all could easily play plenty of first grade… in fact, after no doubt paying ‘overs’ for them, the Knights’ power brokers are depending on it.
They’re Going To Really Miss… Steve Simpson. A Newcastle stalwart since 1999, Simpson is regarded as one of the greatest players to come from the Hunter region. His workhorse attitude and all-round ability to lead the troops by example will be sorely missed. Simpson played 13 Origin games for New South Wales and seven Tests for Australia in an impressive career, which included a premiership with the club in 2001. His understated leadership will be hard to replace.
Time To Stand Up… Jarrod Mullen. After a relatively slow start to the season last year Mullen did produce some moments to be proud of but the time has come for him to be the dominant force in this team. He ranked just 12th for line-break assists (six) among all NRL five-eighths last year and his 11 try assists were middle of the pack.
Last year Kurt Gidley was playing like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and it is up to Mullen to take some of the burden away. Long touted as the man to take over from Andrew Johns, it’s not unfair to suggest Mullen has been inconsistent and fallen short of expectation.
Mitigating that, no-one can replace Johns but this kid does have the talent to be better on a more regular basis. It is time for him to take matches by the scruff of the neck and control the tempo.
Coach Watch… Rick Stone gets cut some slack as he is a local coach in a local team – but Knights fans don’t like losing and if the team isn’t in the fight for a finals spot after finishing 11th last season, he could start to feel a noose tightening.
Stone is by no means safe in the job, especially given Tinkler’s potential involvement and the financier’s track record of switching trainers in his thoroughbred operations, so you should ‘watch this space’. That said, you wouldn’t post him favourite to be sacked second (after Brisbane’s Ivan Henjak) in 2011 either – arguably Neil Henry or Shane Flanagan could be next in line.
They’ll Be Boosted By… Neville Costigan. The Dragons’ premiership winner was back to his brutal best in the run towards glory last year and if he can bring half of that aggression to the Knights on a regular basis they will be a considerably more-feared pack.
Costigan is as tough as they come and will take the ball into the teeth of the opposition without fear or favour for the duration of his stint on the field (he averaged 49 minutes last season). Perhaps more importantly, his punishing defensive hits are likely to spur his team-mates into action. He’ll be a real ‘follow me’ man.
Predicted Finish... A lack of depth will probably find out the Knights. They may contend at times but realistically look set for a finish anywhere between 10th and last.
Toyota Cup… The Knights’ junior team finished 12th in 2010 so they’ll be hoping for a better showing this season. The 2010 Knights under-18s side made the finals only to be knocked out in the first week by the eventual premier Roosters. With some talent moving up to the -20s there is a strong hope of finals football.
Gains… Neville Costigan (Dragons), Beau Henry (Dragons), Chris Houston (suspension pending court hearing), Siuatonga Likiliki (Warriors), Maipele Morseau (Storm), Kyle O’Donnell (Sharks), Korbin Sims (Broncos), Steve Southern (Cowboys).
Losses… Ben Cross (Leeds Rhinos), Scott Dureau (Les Catalans Dragons), Steve Simpson (retired), Cooper Vuna (Melbourne Rebels).