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Injury prevention key to Pearce recapturing form: O'Brien

A thorough investigation into the side's horror injury toll in 2020 has left Knights coach Adam O'Brien adamant the club's high-performance programs were not to blame for their misfortunes.

Newcastle's woes started in round two when Jayden Brailey ruptured his ACL before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the competition.

Then the club's astute mid-season recruits Andrew McCullough (hamstring) and Blake Green (knee) went down, along with livewire Connor Watson, who ruptured his achilles.

Green's injury led to O'Brien labelling the injuries to the spine as "carnage" in August as the Knights slipped down the Telstra Premiership ladder in the second half of the season.

"We've done a thorough investigation around it," O'Brien told NRL.com.

"We had the one soft tissue injury which is usually a sign of your program if you have too many, and that was Tex Hoy towards the end of the season.

Best finishes: Souths fall just short as Knights dig deep

"We looked at the two ACLs [to Brailey and Green], which were through contact.

"Then Connor and Andrew in torrential rain … it's just a circumstantial thing.

"I've got full faith with our medical team and we're confident we're across where we need to be given there were also so many different variables this season.

"Everything from rule changes to game-day travel to mental and physical stress of COVID.

"It was a very hard year but I'm content with what they've done at the moment."

Analysing the Knights' 2021 draw

Green the key to Pearce 

The player who struggled most with the constant spine rotation was Pearce, who produced a season of mixed form which was reflective of the constant changes.

Pearce's form came under heavy scrutiny leading into the brief finals campaign, to the point where the Knights captain's future at the club also came into question in the wash-up.

He has a season left to run on his four-year contract with the Knights and O'Brien has already dismissed talk of an early exit.

"I really felt for him this year," O'Brien said.

"At the start of the season Mitch and Kurt Mann went well. Kurt was outstanding in the six role and Mitch as the main organiser played with a lot of freedom.

"With all the injuries and having to move Kurt around it really impacted Mitchell. When you're the seven and constantly changing the halves partner, it has a big impact.

"When Blake Green came in against the Tigers it was Mitch's best game all year, straight away ... just someone to take some heat off."

Knights' top five tries of 2020

It was in those two-and-a-half games that Green convinced O'Brien he was the key to rejuvenating Pearce in 2021. 

While Green, 34, is likely to miss the opening rounds of the season as he recovers from his knee surgery, when he does partner Pearce in the halves they'll be the oldest pairing in the Telstra Premiership.

"It's really important we keep someone like Blake Green, not only on the field but in and around the group," O'Brien said.

Knights veteran Blake Green.
Knights veteran Blake Green. ©NRL Photos

"He shoulders some of the responsibility and makes everyone including the coaches better.

"His rehab so far has been outstanding and I love having him in and around the day-to-day stuff with the club."

O'Brien confirmed Mann and Watson were likely to revert to a floating middle forward's position if the remainder of the spine can stay healthy next season.  

He referred to Roosters lock Victor Radley and bullocking Storm forward Brandon Smith as examples of the modern-day men in roaming roles.

"That sort of player has come back into the game a little bit," O'Brien said.

"I also see opportunities for Phoenix Crossland and Tex Hoy. If there's one thing I have learned during this season is you need good depth."

2020 Ken Stephen Medallist – Connor Watson

Planning ahead

The Knights have two spots left in their top 30 but O'Brien indicated the club would wait to see what unfolds over the next few months to fill those positions.

NSW forward Tyson Frizell is a ready-made replacement for the retired Aidan Guerra, while Jake Clifford won't start at the Knights until the 2022 season.

Newcastle bid farewell to several other players in the off-season including Tim Glasby (retirement), Herman Ese'ese (Gold Coast), Sione Mata'utia (St Helens) and Tautau Moga (Rabbitohs).

They've invested in youth, recruiting two English products in centre Dominic Young and fullback Bailey Hodgson, the nephew of Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson, on long-term deals.

"Clint Zammit and Alex McKinnon are constantly looking out there so I don't like to stick my bib in too much," O'Brien said.

"But we're always evaluating the roster."

One area the Knights may look to beef up is their centre-wing options with Bradman Best, Hymel Hunt and Edrick Lee likely to join Kalyn Ponga in the backs.

Enari Tuala and Gehamat Shibasaki shared roles throughout the 2020 season after joining the Knights last year but the jury is out on whether either can lock down a permanent spot.

"I feel like with Enari and Gehamat another season is only going to be beneficial for their development," O'Brien said.

We just ran out of gas in the end and I have some responsibility in that.

Adam O'Brien

"In 12 months you can already see how far in front they are to last year. A guy like Enari I thought he gave us some great games last season and won us a couple, but it was more my fault towards the end for when we did get Bradman back from injury.

"I wanted to give Bradman back his spot and move Enari to the right side [in the finals].

"There was a bit of a lack of repetition and combination on the right edge which hurt him in the last game but he's a huge pass mark for me with what he gave us for the year.

"And I could tell meeting with him afterward, that it really hurt him and will drive him through the summer as well."

Newcastle's Gehamat Shibasaki is crunched by the Warriors.
Newcastle's Gehamat Shibasaki is crunched by the Warriors. ©NRL Photos

Hungry for success

O'Brien hopes Tuala's attitude and desire is a similar mood across the entire playing squad over the pre-season given their finals exit. 

Newcastle waited seven years to reach the playoffs but lasted just 80 minutes in a game that probably typified their season.

They started well for a 14-0 lead against South Sydney in the opening week of the finals before conceding eight tries in a nightmare finish to their campaign.

"It was a year I'll never forget, not just because it was the first year as an NRL coach but going through COVID was a learning curve for everyone," O'Brien said.

"It had the whole lot in there and it was a rollercoaster, but I waited a long time to get on the ride so I should just enjoy it at the same time.

"We just ran out of gas in the end and I have some responsibility in that, making sure our group is as healthy as it can be towards the end of the year.

"On review, the region and players were happy with making the finals and that's great, but at the same time we were in the finals for 80 minutes and it wasn't long enough.

"The way we went out will drive us through the summer. We want more."

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