Newcastle Knights season preview
It's been a rough time for the Newcastle Knights. They go into the 2017 season after claiming back-to-back wooden spoons, with just a single win (and a draw) to their name from the 2016 Telstra Premiership campaign. There was more bad news in the off-season, with Jarrod Mullen testing positive to a banned substance and Pauli Pauli being involved in a car crash that will sideline him for 10 weeks.
But there are some bright signs on the horizon as well. Youngsters like the Saifiti brothers and the Mata'utia brothers are showing promise, as is 20-year-old half Brock Lamb, while the likes of Jamie Buhrer and Rory Kostjasyn add experience and a winning mentality to the squad.
Not even the most die-hard of Newcastle supporters are expecting a title charge this season, but 2017 will be all about improvement as the Knights look to begin a new era at the club.
Gains and losses
Gains: Jamie Buhrer (Sea Eagles), Rory Kostjasyn (Cowboys), Ken Sio (Hull KR), Josh Starling (Sea Eagles), Jacob Gagan (Sharks), Joe Wardle (Huddersfield Giants), Anthony Tupou (Wakefield)
Losses: Jeremy Smith (retirement), James McManus (retirement), Kade Snowden (retirement), Robbie Rochow (Rabbitohs), Akuila Uate (Sea Eagles), Jake Mamo (Huddersfield Giants), Korbin Sims (Broncos)
Newcastle's off-season transactions have been all about freeing up salary cap space and plugging holes in the squad, with Buhrer, Kostjasyn and Josh Starling strengthening a young forward pack. Ken Sio is expected to start in the backline, as is Englishman Joe Wardle who from Huddersfield in a straight swap for Jake Mamo.
What we know
The Knights are at arguably their lowest ebb, finishing last with eight wins in 2015 and then suffering an even worse record last season. There's been an exodus of experienced players in recent years, with much of the reserve grade team that won the 2015 NSW Cup having now been tried at NRL level. Newcastle fans will be hopeful the worst is behind them now, with their young team more experienced this season and new faces like Buhrer quickly taking on leadership roles at the club. The looming arrival in 2018 of a genuine future star in Kalyn Ponga gives some extra incentive for Newcastle's youngsters to establish their place in the NRL side this year, with more big-name signings expected in the near future.
 Telstra Premiership: Trent Hodkinson
Minutes Played, Try Assists.
The Knights have already blooded a host of young players in the past couple of seasons, with the likes of Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Brock Lamb, Pat Mata'utia and Cory Dennis all playing at least half a dozen games last year. Dylan Phythian only managed two games last season but is on track to start in the fullback spot in Round 1, despite featuring mainly in the halves in the junior grades. Youngsters Nick Meaney and centre-turned-second-rower Braden Robson could also be in contention for places in the squad during the season.
Depth has been one of Newcastle's many problems in recent seasons, but the upside of so many players making their debuts last season is that the bulk of the squad now has at least some experience in the top grade. The Knights continue to be blessed with a lot of young talent in the outside backs despite the departures of Akuila Uate and Jake Mamo. Origin centre Dane Gagai is the star while the Mata'utia brothers, Ken Sio, Nathan Ross, Pythian and Denniss provide strong back-up. They're lighter on in the forwards, where 33-year-old Anthony Tupou has been brought in along with Buhrer, Starling and Kostjasyn – although the rapid development of big men Daniel and Jacob Saifiti has helped offset the losses of Korbin and Tariq Sims. Newcastle will be sweating on the continued fitness of Trent Hodkinson, who is the club's only experienced half after the suspension of Mullen, with youngsters Jack Cogger, Jaelen Feeney and Will Pearsall providing back-up to Hodkinson and Brock Lamb.
Jamie Buhrer ($473,000) and Mitch Barnett ($460,000) both averaged around 50 Fantasy points a game last season and are again expected to be kept busy this year, with Buhrer likely to play 80 minutes a game and Barnett likely to shift to lock. Daniel Saifiti ($345,000) is a strong candidate to improve in value after gradually increasing his minutes and Fantasy output last year, while Sione Mata'utia ($299,000) is expected to play out the entire season in the second row after making a mid-year switch to the forwards last season.
The high expectations in Newcastle when Wayne Bennett arrived at the club a few years ago are long gone heading into the 2017 season, but it'll be effort and improvement that Knights fans will be looking for from their team this year. They showed plenty of that in their final trial match against the Canberra Raiders – a thumping 44-0 victory – and will need to bring that intensity when they face full-strength sides in the season proper. They have the ability to handle stronger opponents – a draw and a narrow loss against the impressive Raiders last season shows the Knights can match it with anyone on their day – but producing consistent performances will be vital for Nathan Brown's men. They'll be favourites to take out the wooden spoon once again and a finish any higher than 14th looks unlikely, but by the same token the Knights should be stronger than they were last year. The only way is up.