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Newcastle prepare to go farther in lightness
After three season of heartache the light at the end of the tunnel is within reach for the Newcastle Knights. Having tasted victory on just six occasions during Nathan Brown's tenure as coach, the Hunter outfit are set to soar in 2017 off the back of an emphatic recruitment drive which will see nine players make their first appearances in the Red and Blue on Friday night. Headlined by premiership winners Mitchell Pearce, Slade Griffin, Aidan Guerra and Chris Heighington, along with exciting prospects Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson and Herman Ese'ese, the days of Newcastle fielding sides made up of players in their NRL infancy appear to be condemned to the annals of history. In a major sign of approval given the turmoil supporters have endured as part of the club's rebuild, a crowd in excess of 25,000 is anticipated to venture to McDonald Jones Stadium to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the glory days of the 1990s.
While the majority of attention has been afforded to the rejuvenation of Newcastle heading into the opening round fixture, the success Manly have enjoyed under Trent Barrett in recent times remains noteworthy. Much like the rebuild the Knights have undergone following the appointment of new management, Manly's transformation has yielded unexpected positive results, culminating in a finals finish last season few predicted. While roster management on the Northern Beaches has largely been stable, the key issue facing the Sea Eagles lays in whether former Canberra playmaker Lachlan Croker is capable of assisting Daly Cherry-Evans to the same extent as Blake Green last year. In other notable selections, blockbusting winger Jorge Taufua will make his return to first grade after missing the second half of last season with a knee injury, while respected edge forward Joel Thompson will make his club debut after being granted a release from St. George Illawarra over the off-season.
Last meeting: Round 14 2017 - Sea Eagles 18 Knights 14
Who to watch: Having started in first grade on just five occasions during his time with Melbourne, premiership winner Slade Griffin is set for one of the biggest matches of his career having beaten out incumbent New Zealand international Danny Levi for the sole hooker role at the Knights. Sidelined by injury for years at a time and unable to usurp Cameron Smith in his preferred position, Griffin will take significant confidence out of the show of faith his coach has placed in him to deliver quality service out of dummy half and prove that he is deserving of his role as a starting player. Predominantly known for his defensive work, the 27-year-old Kiwi will also have a rare opportunity to show his worth as an attacking threat and potentially cross for his maiden try in the NRL.
As the leading try-scorer in the history of the Newcastle Knights, Akuila Uate is well versed in getting across the line at McDonald Jones Stadium. However, in his capacity as a Manly Sea Eagles' winger, the prospect of the representative speedster scoring against the Knights is a bittersweet prospect for local supporters to contend with. Enjoying a career renaissance on the Northern Beaches following an irreconcilable decline which saw him released as part of Nathan Brown's restructure, the imposing Fijian will be eager to return the ground that made him a star, while making the most of the second chance provided at Manly.
The favourite: With factors ranging from a vastly improved Newcastle roster, the absence of an established stand-off in the Manly ranks and the overall uncertainty that comes with a new season, neither side can be separated heading into the opening round.
My tip: While a run of seven straight losses against Manly may allude to the struggles the Knights have endured against their 1997 rivals in recent times, a new era is imminent in the Hunter and will be commemorated with a first round victory at home. Knights by 7.
1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Shaun Kenny-dowall 3. Sione Mata'utia 4. Tautau Moga 5. Nathan Ross 6. Connor Watson 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Herman Ese'ese 9. Slade Griffin 10. Jacob Lillyman 11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 12. Aidan Guerra 13. Mitchell Barnett 14. Brock Lamb 15. Chris Heighington 16. Jamie Buhrer 17. Daniel Saifiti
1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Jorge Taufua 3. Matthew Wright 4. Brian Kelly 5. Akuila Uate 6. Lachlan Croker 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Addin Fonua-blake 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Martin Taupau 11. Joel Thompson 12. Curtis Sironen 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Lewis Brown 15. Shaun Lane 16. Frank Winterstein 17. Kelepi Tanginoa
Referees: Adam Gee, Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials: Kasey Badger, Phil Henderson; Video Referees: Luke Patten, Henry Perenara;