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Back to the future for Knights

Newcastle has endured another tough season with just two wins on the board but Nathan Brown's decision to stick with local players in the past 18 months continues to put the community back on the map.

When former Knights coach Brian Smith took over the side in 2008, six players were recruited from outside of Newcastle – it was all new for the region and a move that saw some of their home-grown talent in Josh Perry and Clint Newton moved on against their will, further sparking an era filled with local players being overlooked and forced to depart to chase an opportunity elsewhere.

Wayne Bennett's tenure at the club softened the blow to an extent with the Broncos mentor bringing local juniors Kade Snowden, Willie Mason, Timana Tahu and Alex McKinnon back to where it all began, however the signing of 35-year-old Panthers legend Craig Gower at the time brought the end to talented utility Will Smith's career in Knights colours. 

Newcastle are desperate to ensure those sort of mistakes won't happen again, which is why Brown remains patient with recruitment. 

And while there is still more improvement to be made, Brown's patience in blooding youth is slowly beginning to pay dividends with the performance of Daniel Saifiti in 2017 a key example of the fast-tracking development that's being forced in the Hunter. 

The entire Knights squad of 35 was split up across 10 junior clubs in the Newcastle region earlier in the week to help nurture the next generation of stars coming through. 

Currently there are 18 players in the Knights NRL squad with links back to junior rugby league in Newcastle. 

Knights winger Nathan Ross believes not only is the Back to the juniors program important for the side to give back to the people who continually support them, but for young aspiring rugby league players to realise there is a direct career path right through to first grade. 

"Nights like this allows us to be more relatable to the guys coming through and it gives them a chance to see what it takes to make that step to the next level," Ross said.

"A few of them were showing me how to score, so my spot might be up for grabs in a couple of years with how well they're training."

The Valentine-Eleebana Devils are regarded as one of the strongest junior clubs in the Hunter with former Knights Mason, Paul Harragon, Brett Kimmorley and Michael Ennis all products to come out of the region. 

Representing the club now is Sam Stone, the 19-year-old rookie who made his NRL Telstra Premiership debut at the start of the season and has been described as a Steve Simpson clone by some of his teammates. 

"My old coach is here and this is the club that I played with since I was nine, so it's really good to come back and see the old faces," Stone told Knights TV.

"Traditionally this club is a pretty good club. There is some really good talent here and the Devils are a good breeding ground not just for the Knights but also for everyone.

"It is great for us to come back and see the grassroots of Newcastle rugby league."

While Stone admitted the Newcastle region was also a nursery for rival clubs to target players, the mission for Brown and the Knights is to hold onto the right crop of talent moving forward. 

Current NRL players Smith, Boyd Cordner, Kerrod Holland and Tevita Pangai Junior were all juniors at the Knights prior to making their debut in first grade elsewhere, while Roosters centre Latrell Mitchell made it publicly known earlier in the season he was not wanted by the club at a young age in 2012.   


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