As part of an NRL.com series on players aiming for a bounce-back season, Chris Kennedy examines what Mitchell Pearce needs to do at Newcastle as he enters a crucial year.
After a drought-breaking return to finals footy last year, Newcastle's chances of building on that momentum hinges on Mitchell Pearce's combination with fellow star Kalyn Ponga, a partnership which is yet to realise its full potential.
Their union has shown flashes of brilliance over the past couple of seasons but due to a range of injuries to the star fullback and other key members of the Knights' spine, Pearce has been unable to build cohesion with his attacking cohorts.
Still just 31, the 2013 premiership-winner with the Roosters will bring up 300 games in round three but is coming off a chequered season form-wise.
This year started poorly, demoted from the leadership group over an off-field indiscretion and how Pearce and the playing group respond to that will be important.
Now he is freed of the pressures that go with leadership, Pearce should be able to focus on his own game. He and his teammates are adamant his text message saga has not had any prolonged impact on them.
Regardless of off-field issues or losing the captaincy, Pearce's on-field form is the nuts and bolts of how his and Newcastle's 2021 season will be judged after breaking a seven-year finals duck a year earlier only to succumb meekly in the final two games of the season.
Pearce has certainly had some stunning moments in red and blue over the past three years, without quite capturing the highs of his time in red, white and blue.
Stats slide in a challenging 2020
A constant point of interest and occasionally frustration for Knights fans last year was Pearce's combinations with the other playmakers, most notably Ponga.
One challenge beyond any player's control was the wave of injuries to the rest of the playmakers, with Jayden Brailey and his hooking replacements Andrew McCullough and Connor Watson plus mid-year recruit Blake Green all suffering season-enders at different stages which also had flow-on implications for Kurt Mann.
Despite the reduced season Pearce played just two fewer games in 2020 (21) compared to the previous year (21), but with a noticeable drop-off in line-break assists from 17 to eight.
The tries dried up in 2020; the previous year had been his best try-scoring year since 2014 with eight four-pointers but he found the line just twice last year.
His total running and kicking figures per game were steady but a drop in busts also reflected a decline in his running game, with 33 in 2019 and 22 last year.
His forced drop-outs dropped from 15 to 10, but 2019 was a high water-mark in this stat with his previous best season tally of 11 coming in 2017.
Still, the end result was the club's first finals appearance since 2013 so despite the way the season finished, there is a platform to build on, particularly with players back from injury.
O'Brien provides insight into training
Opportunity in 2021… and some more challenges
The squad overall should have some belief out of the seventh-placed finish. Brailey, Green and Watson return from injury, and if they can stay fit that will provide plenty of support to Pearce and Ponga.
It won't be the ideal pre-season for the playmakers though, with Pearce's recent broken thumb putting him out of footy until virtually round one.
Green won't return from an ACL until a few weeks into the competition at the earliest, while Ponga won't be back from a shoulder operation until about round three. That's three of the four major playmakers not training over summer and two of the four not playing the early rounds.
Other than Pearce's torn pec midway through his first year at the club, he and Ponga have been almost ever-present in the Knights' playmaking spots over the past three years and whether or not the veteran No.7 can recapture something like his best will go a long way to deciding Newcastle's ambitions in 2021.
Knights in 2021
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