The 2018 Telstra Premiership stands as the perfect opportunity for the Newcastle Knights to move off the bottom of the NRL ladder and push to play finals football.
Following an impressive recruitment drive and the continual development of local juniors, the Knights along with coach Nathan Brown will finally see the hard work pay off.
Boasting one of the youngest squads in the NRL in 2018, the Knights were quick to add experience to their side in a bid to aid the development of their youngsters.
Although making the eight is perhaps out of reach for the Knights, they are expected to be much improved in 2018 given the experienced signings they have made to go with their talented youngsters.
Personnel! The Knights were the most active side in the player market over the off-season, adding both experience, youth and premiership winners to their roster.
Soward's Say: Knights in 2018
With an average of 60 games per player in 2017, finishing 16th and fielding one of the youngest squads in the NRL, it’s no surprise Nathan Brown added the much-needed experience to his side aiming to play finals football in 2018.
The recruitment drive began with young gun Kalyn Ponga penning a four-year deal and along the way Brown added the likes of Aiden Guerra, Chris Heighington, Herman Ese’ese, Tautau Moga and Connor Watson, before landing the signature of current Blues halfback Mitchell Pearce.
Newcastle kick-start their 2018 campaign with a Round 1 clash against the Manly Sea Eagles on home soil, but with six of the following seven matches all played away, including clashes with the Melbourne Storm, Sydney Roosters and the Canberra Raiders, the Knights face another tough start to the season.
The Origin period will see the Knights leave the Hunter only once with an away fixture against the Eels in Round 13, before five straight home games and a bye in Round 17 which will hopefully shape their year and propel the Novocastrians towards September.
Their 2018 campaign will end with three away trips in the final month of the season, including a trip across the Tasman in Round 22.
Being an out of Sydney team requires time in the air and on buses, but the draw favours the Knights who only travel 12,965kms compared to the New Zealand Warriors (59,605kms) and are one of only three teams without a five-day turnaround in 2018.
The stat that gives you hope
Newcastle crossed for 72 tries in 2017 with 65% of the total tries scored coming inside the opposition 20.
The strike rate inside the attacking 20m is calculated by dividing the number of play the balls with the tries scored and the Knights strike rate for the season was 9.2%.
When you take into consideration the average for the top four from last year was 9.6%, throw in the likes of Ponga, Watson, Moga and Pearce, the strike rate inside the attacking 20m is bound to improve and result in more four pointers for the Knights.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise
Mitchell Pearce ($824,000) is the standout Fantasy gun at the club, but there is some good value on offer in key positions.
Kalyn Ponga ($552,000) showed glimpses of brilliance at the Cowboys last year and could emerge as a genuine keeper at the back this season, Connor Watson ($401,000) should increase in value after switching from super-sub at the Roosters to a starting five-eighth at Newcastle, and Aidan Guerra ($638,000) will also be underpriced if he plays 80 minutes every week.
All eyes will be on Nathan Brown as he heads into his third season in charge of Newcastle and in his final year of his contract. With only six victories from the past two seasons and a lack of success, Brown has endured one of the toughest periods of his coaching career and the Knights' history.
While results haven’t come easy, he has shown he is the right man to lead the club. Local juniors made their debuts, rookies were given more game time and lessons were learnt for his young squad.
With improved results from 2016 to 2017 and a complete roster overhaul in 2018, Brown now has a roster capable of playing in September and a squad destined for success.
“Our younger players have benefited from playing a significant number of NRL matches for their age while our older players bring with them great experience and leadership. We have a lot of new players in key positions, so like all clubs we have have worked on our combinations over the pre-season and go into the season with confidence,” Brown said.
The key for the Knights will be retaining the likes of Sione Mata’utia, Brock Lamb, Josh King and Luke Yates who are all of contract at season’s end.
Young half Jack Cogger has already committed to the Bulldogs for the 2019 season and after putting in so much hard work with these rookies over the past few seasons, the focus needs to be locking away the four local juniors.
With experienced forwards Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman only on one-year deals, the door is open for Brown to lure a forward in the prime of his career to the Hunter on a long-term deal to guide his youthful pack.
The burning question
Will the Knights finish in the top eight? After three seasons finishing in 16th position and not being a part of the finals series since 2013, the team from the Hunter loom as a genuine finals contender in 2018.
With a new-look spine, match winners and a host of high-profile recruits focused on bringing a winning culture to Newcastle, the Brown-led Knights have all the ingredients to appear in September once again.
Connor Watson – having been included in Brad Fittler’s emerging Blues squad earlier in the year, the talented 21-year old would be the perfect number 14 to a new-look New South Wales side in 2018.
Only 38 games into his NRL career and 24 of those coming from the interchange bench, Watson is a player who can excel in the halves, at number nine or in the fullback role. He will get every opportunity at his new club to shine in the opening months of the Telstra Premiership alongside current Blues half Mitchell Pearce to push his case to become Fittler’s utility player.
Not since the days of Craig Wing or Kurt Gidley has NSW had a genuine Mr Fix it, so can Connor Watson be the man New South Wales has been asking for?
The player you should follow on social media
Nathan Ross, known as “Ross Dog” has become a cult hero in Newcastle both on and off the field. Whether it be scoring tries, what’s happening in and around his teammates, fatherhood, his dedication to giving back to the community or his new found love ‘The Barrel Boys’, the speedster offers a unique look into the life of a rugby league through his twitter and Instagram channels.
Brown says there is plenty of upside for the Knights in 2018 and believes his recruitment over the off-season will be bring results to the Hunter.
NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says…
“The Knights' biggest strength this year is they’ve brought some bench and brought some experience. Those guys are going to come in and teach these young guys what it’s like to win in tough situations and what it’s like to prepare for a big game.
“Newcastle Knights finish 13th.”
Brayden Musgrove, Brent Naden, Brock Lamb, Christian Hazard, Connor Watson, Cory Denniss, Dylan Phythian, Jack Cogger, Jack Johns, Kalyn Ponga, Ken Sio, Mitchell Pearce, Nathan Ross, Nick Meaney, Pat Mata'utia, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Tautau Moga, Tom Hughes, Aidan Guerra, Brodie Jones, Chris Heighington, Daniel Saifiti, Danny Levi, Herman Ese'ese, Jacob Lillyman, Jacob Saifiti, Jamie Buhrer, Josh King, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Luke Yates, Mitch Barnett, Pasami Saulo, Sam Stone, Sione Mata'utia, Slade Griffin, Tom Starling, Tyrone Amey, Zac Hoskins.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.