Year number three of Wayne Bennett’s four-year plan at Newcastle promises to be perhaps his best chance at sending the red-and-blues to premiership glory.
Over the previous two years the Novocastrians have been slowly building – their 12th-placed finish in 2012 was improved to a more than respectable 7th in 2013. Their older roster then successfully navigated their way past two sudden-death finals, accounting for both the Bulldogs and Storm away from home before ultimately being outclassed by the Roosters in the preliminary final.
There’s been a lot to like about Newcastle in the two years Bennett has been in charge and in 2013 it appeared he had finally gotten the side to play relatively consistent football over the course of the season.
They proved towards the back end of the season they could match it with the best and it would be a brave punter to back against them finishing in the top four in 2014 provided they can continue to improve on that consistency – particularly on the road.
Coach Bennett will more than likely have to rely on new signing Michael Dobson to form a halves combination with Tyrone Roberts for the first half of the season after Jarrod Mullen tore his hamstring in the Auckland Nines last weekend which is likely to keep him on the sidelines for up to four months. Matt Minto is another off-season signing who will also hope to get his chance in Mullen's absence.
Novocastrians have been starved of success in recent seasons and despite the loss of Russell Packer, which will leave a hole in their forward rotation, the Knights have the nucleus of the 2013 side back for another crack at the title this year. With that stability comes expectation from the Knights Army which will continue to grow provided the on-field performances are of a standard where wins become the norm.
Where they can win it
Through experience. They’ve been there before. There’s no substitute for it and while some fans may argue the Knights side is a little on the older side, with that comes the know-how when they approach the pressure-cooker games that are finals. They’ll be better for the run of three successive sudden-death finals last year if they find themselves in a similar position in 2014.
Where they may struggle
Hooker. The retirement of Danny Buderus leaves a hole in arguably the most important position on the park and while they appear to have it covered through skipper Kurt Gidley and Adam Clydsdale, questions remain about either players durability in the week-to-week grind of the NRL. In saying that, Clydsdale appears to have the skillset to succeed at hooker, it just remains to be seen as to whether that happens in 2014.
It was meant to be Jarrod Mullen, but the football gods had something to say about that. The playmaker will meet with his surgeon on Monday where they will plot a rehabilitation program for the hamstring injury he suffered in the Nines last weekend. Early reports suggest a possible tear off the bone which could see him out for four months. In Mullen's absence, a lot of pressure will fall onto the shoulders of halfback Tyrone Roberts who has shown he has the ability to be a match-winner in his own right. Fresh from signing a new two-year deal on Wednesday, the youngster will hope to repay the faith shown in him by coach Bennett and steer the side around the park until Mullen returns.
Rookie to watch
Jake Mamo. The little-known speedster lit up the Auckland Nines last weekend and was the talk of social media following the tournament with opposition fans conceding they liked what they saw. He’ll have limited opportunities this year with Darius Boyd, Akuila Uate and James McManus all appearing likely to start in the majority of games, but Memo showed he has what it takes if called upon during the representative part of the season.
The big plays
As has been the case with Wayne Bennett-coached teams in recent times, the emphasis will be on defence and minimising errors. The Knights almost had that downpat last year where it was unusual for them to be too flamboyant in their own half. Once inside the opposition 30m area the shackles were released and some perfectly executed second-man plays became the norm with Darius Boyd being the player to sweep out the back to create overlaps on the outside for either Uate or McManus. Most teams in the NRL will know it’s coming, but preventing it is another thing altogether. Expect Bennett to briefly tinker with the same idea, but keep a similar game plan from the Knights in 2014.
Likely round 1 side vs Panthers
1. Darius Boyd 2. James McManus 3. Dane Gagai 4. Joey Leilua 5. Akuila Uate 6. Michael Dobson 7. Tyrone Roberts 8. Kade Snowden 9. Kurt Gidley © 10. Willie Mason 11. Robbie Rochow 12. Beau Scott 13. Jeremy Smith
Interchange: 14. Adam Clydsdale 15. Korbin Sims 16. Zane Tetevano 17. Alex McKinnon