Newcastle Knights season preview
The arrival of new coach Nathan Brown heralds a new era for the Newcastle Knights in 2016. With one of the most unexperienced squads in the NRL, the Knights will be pumped up for the new season and keen to erase memories of last year's wooden spoon finish.
Gains and losses
Gains: Trent Hodkinson (Bulldogs), Mickey Paea (Hull FC), Will Pearsall (Sea Eagles), David Bhana (Warriors), Pauli Pauli (Eels)
Losses: Kurt Gidley (Warrington Wolves), Beau Scott (Eels), Clint Newton (retirement), David Fa'alogo (retirement), Carlos Tuimavave (Hull FC), Tyrone Roberts (Titans), Adam Clydsdale (Raiders), Kerrod Holland (Bulldogs), Todd Lowrie (retirement), Honeti Tuha (Eels), Chris Houston (Widnes Vikings), Joseph Tapine (Canberra Raiders)
What we know
With names like Gidley, Newton, Scott, Fa'alogo and Houston no longer sighted on the Knights' squad list, what we know about Newcastle is they have lost more than 1100 games of first-grade experience. While new signings Trent Hodkinson and Mickey Paea cut this back slightly, their only other recruit with NRL experience is Pauli Pauli with 33 games to his name. What's to come when injuries and suspension inevitably present themselves is an influx of rookies in 2016, with 16 players in Newcastle's wider NRL squad yet to make their debuts.
How Hodkinson and Jarrod Mullen manage their halves partnership will be crucial to the Knights' fortunes. Not helping their cause is the uncertainty around the first-choice spine, with the fullback role in particular up in the air. Rookie Jaelen Feeney seemingly holds the inside running for the No. 1 jersey, but anything remains possible with Nathan Ross and Jake Mamo exhibiting solid pre-season form. Whatever Brown decides to do with the flashy trio will have direct implications to where Sione Mata'utia's future lies. But that's a Round 2 concern, with the Kangaroos international suspended for the season opener.
What Jaelen Feeney lacks in experience, he certainly makes up for with his impressive CV. A former Queensland under-20s representative, Feeney is looking to make the shift from the halves to fullback this season despite having next to no experience in the No. 1 jumper. After leading Newcastle to the NSW Cup premiership last year at halfback, Feeney's expected shift has been discussed by Brown since day dot of his tenure and it's looking a goer for Newcastle's season-opener against the Titans.
Newcastle's depth in the outside backs is one of the few certainties at the club heading into the new season with plenty vying for first-grade debuts. The same can be said for their halves. While Hodkinson and Mullen are clear first-choice options, the Knights have contracted three of the brightest young prospects in the game in Brock Lamb, Jack Cogger and Will Pearsall. Of concern though are the Knights' forwards, with not many big men putting their hand up outside of the preferred 17.
Kade Snowden ($468,000) is Newcastle's brightest NRL Fantasy prospect. Finishing the 2015 season with the fourth-highest average for a front-rower (52.4), the former NSW and Australian representative is a proven performer. Robbie Rochow ($305,000) only played five games in his injury-ravaged campaign but managed a little over 40 points per game. With Tariq Sims suspended and Rochow's breakeven sitting at 34, there's room for improvement from the back-rower.
His last season in the NRL was in 2008 but in that time Nathan Brown turned the fortunes of the Huddersfield Giants around, before going on to win the English Super League with St Helens. Brown's return to the NRL has been inevitable, and something he's chipped away at over the past 12 months with assistant roles at the Storm and New South Wales. His job security is strong considering it's his first season at a club clearly renovating.
Simply put the only way is up for the Newcastle Knights in 2016, or at the very least, sideways. You can't get much worse than their wooden spoon finish last season, even if they were the equal "best" last-placed team in rugby league history. This is a year for rebuilding in Newcastle, with expectations fairly low from an outsiders perspective. But pressure from Brown and assistants Mick Potter and Danny Buderus should make those previously content with their place at the Knights hungry to succeed this season.