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Knights 2021 season preview: Spine needs to get steady

Newcastle had their first taste of finals football in seven years in 2020 and will be looking to build on their ladder finish this season.

The question is, can they do it after a short and sweet finals exit to South Sydney in week one?

Injuries and a summer filled with off-season drama have already threatened to derail their new campaign before a ball is kicked.

However, on paper, there is much more up-side to the Knights as they look to achieve back-to-back top eight appearances for the first time since 2003.

With another pre-season under Adam O'Brien's belt and a contract extension as well, the coach will also be better for the run as he looks to land a top-four finish. 

The Knights' 2020 season in review

The 2021 outlook

What's new

The arrival of Tyson Frizell is a great pick-up, with the NSW and Australian representative joining the likes of David Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti in the forward pack. 

Newcastle have lost a plethora of experience over the off-season with Aidan Guerra and Tim Glasby retiring and Sione Mata'utia, Andrew McCullough, Herman Ese'ese and Tautau Moga moving on.

In return, the club has recruited a host of youngsters including Englishmen Bailey Hodgson and Dominic Young, both of whom made their Super League debut last year but are unproven in the NRL. 

The Draw

Newcastle look to have been gifted a kind start to their draw, with four of their first five games at home and against teams who missed the finals in 2020. 

However, they'll kick start their campaign against the Bulldogs, who have won eight of the last nine clashes between the two sides, including the past six in Newcastle.

Analysing the Knights' 2021 draw

Things will start to get tricky for them after round five with road trips against heavyweights Penrith and Canberra.  

The three weeks following Origin III will not be easy with the Storm, Roosters and Raiders providing the opposition.

The attacking threat of a fully-fit Knights spine

Burning Question

Can the Knights' spine stay healthy?

Injuries in key positions were an issue at the Knights prior to O'Brien's arrival. No man suffered more last year with all the changes than Mitchell Pearce.

After an off-season of personal turmoil for Pearce, a big year from the Knights halfback will go a long way towards Newcastle finishing high in the top eight.

However, he'll need some help and injury luck from his playmaking teammates to get them there.

Their campaign won't start well in this department with Kalyn Ponga and Blake Green sidelined for the early rounds.

However, they'll be happy if that's where it ends for the remainder of the year.

The return of Knights hooker Jayden Brailey will almost feel like a new recruit at the club, while Connor Watson's expected switch to the forwards will be intriguing to watch.

Ponga wants to be a leader

Stat that gives you hope

An 82-24 aggregate scoreline and three wins.

In the short time between Blake Green arriving in Newcastle and him being hurt, the side looked a completely different team. Kalyn Ponga was the biggest winner of all in wins over the Wests Tigers, Sea Eagles and Cowboys with six try assists alone.

Green's ACL injury was another heartbreaking blow for the Knights but his retention is a sign the coaching staff liked what they saw. The Knights went win-loss-win-loss after when he went down before being thrashed in week one of the finals. 

O'Brien provides insight into training

Breakout player

Dominic Young. The Knights have the left edge sorted with Bradman Best in the centres but the jury is still out on the opposite side with Enari Tuala and Gehamat Shibasaki sharing the duties last year.

Young arrives at the Knights from the UK as a 19-year-old who has already made his Super League debut with Huddersfield. While he may need a bit of time to settle into his surroundings, there is a genuine opportunity for the 106-kilogram giant to force his way into the backline.

Contract matters

Newcastle management will have decisions to make around a dozen players who are without deals for 2022 including veterans Mitchell Pearce and Blake Green.

Any decisions on the pair could have a flow-on effect for the remainder of the squad with those off-contract including utilities Kurt Mann, Connor Watson and Tex Hoy.

Ever-consistent outside backs Edrick Lee and Hymel Hunt are also among those playing for their futures.

Everybody’s heading to Magic Round

Fantasy 

Connor Watson ($323k) and Jayden Brailey ($410k) are two of the best moneymaking options in Fantasy this year, with Watson pushing for big minutes at lock and Brailey returning to his 80-minute hooker role after an injury-wrecked 2020.

Tex Hoy ($314k) is a cash cow candidate if Kalyn Ponga misses five or six rounds at the start of the year and Bradman Best ($595k) should be among the highest-scoring options at centre.

The Quote

"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."

- Knights coach Adam O'Brien reflecting on last year's efforts ahead of the 2021 season

Super ball: EISS Super three-year deal means new-look footy

The good, the bad, the likely

The good: The Knights have a team capable of finishing in the top four but it all seems to come down to what happens between the ears. The strength is the forward pack, while their outside backs are coming of age. On their good day, they can match it with any team in the NRL.

The bad: Recent history has shown things can turn sour for the Knights rather quickly. There is plenty between the side's good and bad performances, evident in their win-loss-win-loss finish last year where you didn't know which side was going to show up on the day. We saw improvements under Adam O'Brien in the early stages last year but it all fell away late. It wouldn't surprise if that happened again.

The likely: All will depend on how the Knights handle the opening six weeks of the competition when short on big names. A strong start will only help them in the latter stages of the season, where they dropped off last year. Either way, Knights fans ought to strap themselves in for another season of unpredictability. A top sixth-place finish should be the bare minimum.

Knights in 2021

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