Contract talks continue for in-form Fitzgibbon
Boom back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon is one of Newcastle's most-improved players this year, nailing a big-minute starting role and scoring tries in two of their recent three straight wins but remains unsigned for next year despite ongoing contract negotiations.
Publicly coach Nathan Brown has made assurances the club would like to keep the powerful second-rower. Fitzgibbon told NRL.com he was still in talks and keen to stay though he also was under no illusions that with the likes of Aidan Guerra and Herman Ese'ese inbound next year that opportunities may again be tougher to come by.
"I haven't [signed anywhere] yet; I'm in talks at the moment," Fitzgibbon said.
"I think next year we're bringing in some good recruits and it's going to make my position – I'll have to fight even harder to hopefully maintain that position."
There is certainly some appeal to staying with the club and a group of local juniors all on an upward curve at the same time. Not the least of those is half Brock Lamb, who has been a star over the past three wins and played some junior footy with Fitzgibbon despite the age difference.
"If I get the opportunity to play alongside Lamby long term, I'm sure Lamby's going to be a great player and I'd love to be around him playing."
Fitzgibbon has been the beneficiary of some of Lamb's creativity in a few of his tries this year – including against the Eels – with the pair forming a dangerous right-edge partnership.
"Myself and Lamby, we played 20s together," Fitzgibbon said.
"We played on the same edge but on the left edge in 20s and he's moved over to the right, I've moved over to the right and we've got a good understanding. I know how he plays his footy and I think he's getting an understanding of how I play my footy and hopefully we can build a good combo over time."
Lamb himself had some strong words of praise.
"He's come a long way, Fitzy, he's a good player," Lamb told NRL.com.
"He reminds me of Steve Simpson. He just rips in and doesn't back down from anything. A couple of years ago he probably wasn't like that but geez he's an asset to this team."
The 23-year-old South Newcastle junior has been afford the chance to develop slightly later than some of his extremely youthful teammates, Lamb included; he made his debut off the bench in a one-off game in 2015 before adding five more bench appearances last year.
It is paying dividends this year; eight of his 11 games this year have come in the run-on side and include five of his six career tries and five 80-minute stints with a sturdy 27 tackle busts in his 11 games to go with the five four-pointers.
He was one of the best on ground – behind Lamb – in the Knights' last-start 29-10 win over the Eels (the club's first away win in two years) and afterwards told NRL.com he was enjoying the extra responsibility of late.
"The first 10 to 15 games playing NRL is a learning curve but I'm over that hurdle at the moment," Fitzgibbon said.
"I'm getting used to playing NRL week in week out and it's paying dividends for my confidence and the way we're playing footy.
"Once I got an opportunity to play in the [starting] back row I grabbed it with both hands and off the back of the boys playing well I've had some opportunities."
While Fitzgibbon was noncommittal on his own immediate future, he was effusive about that of the club.
"I've grown up playing with the Knights and supporting the Knights through tough times and I think we're on an upward climb right now," he said.
"We've got a few young boys showing their class at the moment and over the next few years they'll only get bigger and better. I came through the 18s and 20s system playing with a lot of these boys and to be playing with them at NRL level is unreal."
The mood around the playing group is positive now, he added, but it has been that way all year.
"We haven't lost confidence all year. I'm not too sure how many games it is now we've gone in leading at half time, it's just the closing out of the games that we struggled with and over the last six or so weeks we've managed to learn from the second half losses. I think we're building off the back end of this year into next year hopefully."