25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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If you're inclined to jump aboard the odd bandwagon then you had best get ready now - there's one fast approaching an office, Internet forum, or TAB near you. Don't be alarmed, but it might be hurtling past your front door this very minute. If you haven't heard it yet, the 2010 crusade of the Newcastle Knights has already crumbled. They are dead in the water. Ten days short of the opening round and last year's finalists are the wooden spoon favourites. Officially, betting has been suspended, but it's just a matter of time. The only thing more certain is that Brian Smith is currently the most relieved man in footy. He's no longer King of the Castle; it's not his problem to deal with. Many were predicting a slide down the table even before the Danny Wicks saga rocked the club. Sides built on foundations of depth and teamwork often battle for respect compared with those propped up by superstar talent and marquee names. Now, though, with the latest news of Wicks' former housemate Chris Houston's charges for alleged drug supply, the rugby league world seems convinced that a messy red and blue puddle of scandal and chaos is swiftly going to form at the bottom of the NRL ladder. The knives are out; the Knights are cooked. It's an easy judgment to form. Controversy like this has destroyed clubs in the past. It's not so much the loss of two players before a single tackle - it's the upheaval and distraction that attacks like a virus. If heads drop off the field, the bundle is dropped on it. And this is a playing group that despite spending most of 2009 embedded in the top eight and proving many doubters wrong, suddenly buckled like Kurt Gidley's knee in the All Stars game as soon as word broke of coach Smith's plan to leave them. Bookmakers and punters will view this as a precedent. Still, the experts have been wrong many times before. It's the reason this game is great. It's the reason this competition's closeness is unrivalled. Nothing is certain. Publicly key figures at the Knights will claim they remain focused. Fair enough too, nobody expects coach Rick Stone to come out and say, "oh well you can write us off guys, we'll just be going through the motions to earn our salaries this year". It's privately - behind closed doors and in the minds of the players - that will decide the outcome. On the field Newcastle can cope without these two. Wicks battled for fitness and has always under-achieved. Houston is a blow, but his position is one of their biggest strengths. Tolar, Ciraldo, Mika, Karawana and Tovo are far from household names but Stone will have faith they provide adequate cover. Taia, Simpson and Hilder form a solid back row, whilst Cory Paterson's and Ben Cross's respective returns from difficult 2009 campaigns are virtually equivalent to two new signings. Former Warrior Evarn Tuimavave might prove to be one of the buys of the season. Last season the Novocastrians played an exciting brand of football. Despite key threats Gidley and Mullen both being perhaps below their best, the team proved capable of scoring points via a number of avenues across the park. Their record against fellow top eight opposition was superb. Stone made a successful initial foray into the role of head coach, and in the end only a disappointing, hard-fought loss to the Bulldogs after early game-ending injuries to key men Isaac De Gois and Zeb Taia halted their season. There is much to like about the Newcastle Knights' chances. Then again, there is much to be wary of. No doubt a lot will depend on the ongoing findings of the case that has so far claimed two victims. A few more blows like this would be potentially debilitating, whilst an incident-free run from here would leave them right in the mix. All will be revealed as the season (and court case) unfolds. In the meantime, this writer is planning to have a few bucks on one particular team winning one particular spoon. And yes it does begin with 'New', but no it doesn't end with 'castle'. In a few months time there couldn't even be a bandwagon for them. For more of Kalon, visit his blog leaguelarrikin.blogspot.com