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For & Against: Will Knights make the finals?

Newcastle Knights fans have been waiting patiently for two decades to celebrate another premiership but do they have what it takes to mount a serious challenge in 2021?

The arrival of Tyson Frizell and the return of Jayden Brailey from injury are reasons for hope but questions linger around the ability of their playmakers to get the job done in high-pressure games.

Before they can contemplate a premiership, the Knights must find the consistency needed to get into the top eight and this week's For & Against examines whether finals footy is a realistic goal for Newcastle.

Every try from round 1

For

NRL.com senior journalist Martin Lenehan

The Knights returned to the finals last year for the first time since 2013 and the addition of Tyson Frizell only makes them stronger so why wouldn’t they be there again in 2021?

Adding Frizell to a pack that already boasted rep stars David Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti is set to pay immediate dividends for Newcastle if their round one win is anything to go by.

Frizell ran for 180 metres from 15 hit-ups and his presence helped lift Saifiti (19 runs for 174 metres) to another level in his 100th NRL game.

Klemmer did what Klemmer does, storming over the top of the Bulldogs pack to the tune of 217 metres from 24 hit-ups.

The numbers are impressive but the real indication that the Knights are finals bound again was in their attitude. They were tested early by the Bulldogs and fell behind twice in the first half but there was none of the panic that would’ve set in during the horror years from 2014 to 2019.

Match Highlights: Knights v Bulldogs

When playmaker Kurt Mann was forced from the field with a knee injury the Knights remained composed. Connor Watson slotted in seamlessly alongside Mitchell Pearce and their attack barely missed a beat.

Hooker Jayden Brailey was sensational in his return from a knee reconstruction, plugging the middle with 50 tackles and keeping the Dogs’ ruck defence honest with seven runs for 65 metres.

The classy No.9 also had two line-break assists and a try assist as he reminded the Knights faithful just how much they missed him last year.

And speaking of watching from the sideline, that’s exactly where Newcastle’s No.1 gun Kalyn Ponga was last Friday, working his way back from a shoulder injury.

Even without Ponga and Edrick Lee, the Knights still put five tries on the Bulldogs and showcased a number of attacking threats.

Being without Ponga for the opening month could have been disastrous but the draw has handed them very winnable clashes against the Warriors, Tigers and Dragons in the next three weeks so they could easily be 4-0 when their star fullback returns.

In the meantime, livewire Tex Hoy will do a more than serviceable job at the back and will relish pushing up in support of Klemmer, Saifiti and Mitch Barnett.

Astute mentor Adam O’Brien would have taken plenty of positives out of his first year at the helm and has built himself a team with a quality spine, powerful forwards and plenty of attacking weapons.

Episode 3 - Andrew Abdo and Justin Holbrook

O’Brien spent more than a decade honing his craft alongside two giants of the modern era in Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson and he has fitted seamlessly into the head coaching role.

The pieces are in place on and off the field for the Knights to back up last year’s drought-breaking finals appearance with another trip to the play-offs and do some damage once they get there.  

Against

NRL.com journalist Chris Kennedy

I left the Knights out of my top eight when we were asked for our predictions ahead of round one and I didn't see enough against the Bulldogs to have changed my mind yet.

My reasoning was mainly around their playmakers; neither Kalyn Ponga nor Blake Green have trained all summer and neither is expected back for a few more weeks.

Mitchell Pearce missed a huge chunk of the off-season with a broken thumb and in three previous seasons hasn't really stamped himself on this side.

Get Caught Up: Round 1

Jayden Brailey has hardly played with any of them after his ACL injury last year. Brailey was excellent in his first game back in round one to be fair and is one of the key reasons to back the Knights this year.

The other big strength is their potent Origin forward trio of Daniel Saifiti, David Klemmer and Tyson Frizell, each of whom were excellent against the Dogs.

But the team overall was highly unconvincing last year in scraping into seventh, particularly the way they finished their season, conceding some big scores to teams that missed the finals and struggling against the competition heavyweights with only two wins against teams that finished above them.

With the greatest of respect to Trent Barrett's rebuilding Bulldogs, the Knights didn't have a lot to beat last Friday and it's even tougher to get a read given the awful playing conditions so I'm not taking a lot of stock out of the 32-16 result.

Canterbury struggled badly for points last year and found three relatively straightforward tries on Friday in bad conditions.

Happy days for the Knights.
Happy days for the Knights. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

History tells us two or three sides drop out of the eight year-to-year and for mine, last year's top six all look reasonably safe already with the Knights and Sharks under the greatest threat from the likes of the Warriors and Titans.

The club actually has a remarkably friendly draw over the opening six rounds but with the Panthers, Roosters and Raiders in three games from round seven to nine – with all Newcastle's stars theoretically back on the park by then – we will get a much better idea of how they're travelling.

My feeling at this stage is there will be a reality check coming.

Will the Knights make the top eight?

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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.