What do you get when you chuck together a new (albeit returning) coach, a staff familiar with the local area which also includes a club legend, two sets of brothers and a fit and healthy squad raring to go for Round 1?
The Newcastle Knights, that's who!
It doesn't take a genius to realise coach Rick Stone is doing his best in the post-Wayne Bennett era to inject a sorely missed Newcastle flavour into the mix, and having club legend Danny Buderus officially on the coaching staff helps.
With the club drawing on and planning to strengthen their ties with the Hunter community, all roads lead to the Knights attempting to make Hunter Stadium a fortress once again – a nifty plan really considering eight of Newcastle's first 13 games in 2015 will be played there.
While the club have lost Darius Boyd, Adam Cuthbertson, Matt Hilder and Willie Mason, Stone has countered this by blending the club's pre-season with a healthy, youthful unification of first grade, NYC and NSW Cup players in their training – ensuring plenty of players are prepared for the long season ahead.
Despite their early season woes last year, Newcastle went on to win eight of their last 11 games meaning they are heading into the season ahead with momentum on their side.
A source of inspiration for the club in the final half of last season was definitely Alex McKinnon, who has returned to Newcastle in an off-field capacity, which should prove to be another boost to the club's fortunes.
Gains and losses
Gains: Tariq Sims (Cowboys), Carlos Tuimavave (Warriors), Jack Stockwell (Knights).
Losses: Darius Boyd (Broncos), Adam Cuthbertson (Leeds), Michael Dobson (Salford), Matt Hilder (retired), Travis Waddell (Broncos), Matt Minto (CQ Capras), Josh Mantellato (Hull KR), Willie Mason (Sea Eagles), Zane Tetevano (sacked), Brayden Williame (Sea Eagles).
What we know
It is easy to talk about Jarrod Mullen's kicking game or the club continuing to be top of the class in terms of tackle breaks (737 in 2014 – second in the NRL) but the most exciting certainty is the impact the Knights' back-row of Tariq Sims, Beau Scott, Jeremy Smith, and Robbie Rochow is going to have on the competition. All four key men have played representative football with Scott (Kangaroos) and Smith (Kiwis) reaching the peak of their allegiances in addition to Sims and Rochow's Country Origin jerseys. While Sims is suspended until Round 5, it won't stop the other lads from making inroads in the first month of the competition.
The problem (if you can call it that) with Newcastle at the moment is that they have too many high quality players capable of playing in their back five. The three Mata'utia brothers, plus Nathan Ross and Jake Mamo are all capable of playing in the NRL but will have to oust either Akuila Uate, James McManus, captain Kurt Gidley, Joey Leilua or Dane Gagai to force their way into the team. It will be no mean feat for these fringe backs and an unquestionable headache for coach Stone to mull over.
Sure Sione Mata'utia played for Australia after seven first grade games but not even the young Kangaroo has come close to the performances of Mamo this pre-season and in the trials. An absolute star at the Auckland Nines and in the top three fittest players at the club, Mamo – like Sione – has played seven games and not once looked out of place. It's a huge feat considering most of his appearances in the NRL came while he struggled with a severe back complaint. The off-contract Mamo will have to bide his time though with plenty of classy outside backs ahead of him.
Room for improvement
Two wins after 14 rounds really left Newcastle in a shambles early on last year. While they made a mini-comeback to finish the season on a high, they still have plenty to work on. Surprisingly, penalties and errors were not the issue as they finished in the top four in terms of discipline. However, the club struggled in other key facets: tries (sixth fewest in the NRL), metres gained (sixth worst) and missed tackles (third most). It will be interesting to see how Stone plugs these holes considering his front-row stocks have lost the experience of Mason, Cuthbertson and Zane Tetevano over the off-season.
Newcastle should be thankful they have plenty of utilities at the club. Between Sione, Gidley, Carlos Tuimavave and Tyler Randell, the quartet is able to help bulk up the depth of every position other than prop. The lack of a proven hooking back-up for Adam Clydsdale is of concern but Randell has proven in the trials that he could be the man for the job. Newcastle is otherwise well served in the back row and outside backs though the front-row stocks remain a concern. With Jack Stockwell, Kade Snowden, Korbin Sims, Chris Houston and David Fa'alogo all looking likely for a spot in the Knights' 17 come Round 1, an injury to any of them means they really only have NSW Cup props Sam Mataora and Paterika Vaivai to draw upon.
Mullen ($436,000) is the most reliable Fantasy option at the Knights, with his kicking game and ability to break open the defensive line making him a strong scorer. New starting hooker Clydsdale ($231,000) is great value at the start of the year, while Stockwell ($215,000) and Mataora ($137,000) are potential cash cows if they can get significant game time.
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The Knights welcome back Stone into the fold this season after he spent the entirety of the Wayne Bennett era as the mastercoach's assistant and club's NSW Cup coach. Stone last headed the coaching of the club back in 2011 where the club finished eighth. Three seasons later and Stone has instilled a certain Newcastle flavour back into the team – something Bennett's version of the Knights sorely lacked – which will surely pay dividends throughout the season.
Few are tipping big things from Newcastle this season which could help inspire the playing roster to prove a few people wrong. Free of expectations heading into the season, a free-willed Newcastle outfit led by Mullen and livewire halfback Roberts could surprise a few people. A return of ball promotion early in the tackle count to their hungry outside backs also appears likely as the Knights look to play to their strengths. NRL.com prediction: 11th