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Selling the Steel City: Poll reveals Newcastle's rise as a destination

Blake Ferguson. Jack Bird. Matt Scott. Dale Finucane. Kieran Foran. Tevita Pangai jnr.

Matt Prior. Jarrod Wallace. Ben Matulino. Leeson Ah Mau.

They all met with former Knights coach Nathan Brown at one point or another, with offers tabled to most, and interest knocked back by all.

But three years on from a third straight wooden spoon in 2017, the Steel City in the Hunter Valley is selling again with Newcastle well and truly on the rise in the eyes of rival players.

In the 2020 NRL Players Poll, in conjunction with The Sydney Morning Herald, 12% of those surveyed voted Newcastle as the club they would most want to join if they had to leave their own.

Two-time premiers the Roosters dominated the field as expected with 23% of the vote, while Brisbane's pulling power (17%) remains strong despite the recent dramas at Red Hill.

But the Knights' steady rise has them closing in fast on Melbourne (14%) as the third-most popular destination.

Now Newcastle's general manager of football, Novocastrian icon Danny Buderus played a key role in the signing that shifted the Knights narrative of recruitment knockbacks.

In November 2016 Buderus was enlisted to take Kalyn Ponga – then with just two NRL games  to his name – on a tour of the city that included a swim, lunch and 18 holes of golf, with the budding superstar fleeced on the fairways.

"I took his $12 bet on the golf course," Buderus laughed.

"He might be coming after me for that but he can afford that now.

"I think players are seeing stability here now, and an opportunity as well.

"As a player, that's probably the two biggest things you're looking for in a club from a footballing perspective.

"Then on top of that, the fan base are always here through thick and thin and the club's got some great facilities to offer.

"Bringing someone like Kalyn to the club was a big win and it broke that cycle a little bit. He's a unique talent and on the back of him coming down a few other guys have joined as well."

Brown and his old right-hand man Darren Mooney, who held the same role as Buderus until late in 2018, deserve serious credit for Newcastle's turnaround in the market.

Amid a seemingly endless stream of "thanks but no thanks" responses from marquee targets, they stayed the course and took a punt on Ponga with what was then the largest NRL deal tabled to a teenager, believed to be worth around $3 million if he unlocked representative bonuses.

With Ponga arriving in 2018 the likes of Connor Watson, Herman Ese'ese and Aidan Guerra followed later that year.

Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga,
Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga, ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Butter chicken cooked by Brown's wife Tanya for prospective recruits became the talk of the town.

Cronulla and Manly were trumped to secure Mitchell Pearce, and David Klemmer's interest in Newcastle was first sparked by a conversation with Buderus during a 2018 NSW Origin camp.

Rookie coach Adam O'Brien continues to build the Knights with a melding of Newcastle's famed working-class roots and his own experiences at Melbourne and the Roosters.

And now the club is in a position where Kangaroos star Tyson Frizell was presented with the same money by the Dragons and Knights for 2021 and beyond, and opted for the latter on the basis of believing it would be boost his hopes of winning a premiership.

Knights prop David Klemmer.
Knights prop David Klemmer. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"Newcastle's always been big on bringing any possible recruit to the town, showing them around and showing them what we're about," Buderus said.

"Above all though you're selling the club, and you want them here because they want to be a part of a strong, competitive club, not just a great place to live.

"That's one thing we've worked really hard to focus on recently, it's about being successful."

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