Round 1: Knights v Sharks preview
Behind one of the league's most passionate supporter bases, can the Knights match their lofty expectations?
As an outsider looking in, it was certainly encouraging to see the Newcastle faithful out in droves despite their lowly results in recent years.
For many, on-field success is all that matters and they let their feet do the talking. For the people of the Hunter, however, it is about pride.
And the tight-knit community showed plenty of it and were rewarded last year. It wasn't a top-eight finish, sure, but eleventh place is no wooden spoon.
But after an off-season spending spree, which sees David Klemmer, Jesse Ramien and Kurt Mann among others call Newcastle home in 2019, coach Nathan Brown now has to contend with something the club has never considered in past years.
Expectations. And boy are they high. They are warranted though. This is no longer a rebuilding side.
Mitchell Pearce, despite missing 10 games last year, finished within a few points of claiming a shock Dally M medal. Kalyn Ponga is the name on everyone's lips. And their pack rates so highly that Jamie Buhrer missed out on a spot in their seventeen.
All this means nothing if they haven't fixed up their defence. Since 2015, the Knights have finished the last season in the bottom two when it comes to points leaked.
While the arrival of new players can arouse excitement, it may not cover up this fundamental flaw that has continually hindered Newcastle's chances of improvement.
What makes things even tougher for them is that they face Cronulla, a side renowned for their defensive grit and resilience.
What will be interesting to see, however, is whether this was instilled by now departed coach Shane Flanagan. John Morris is certainly under pressure to succeed or risk being usurped by someone more experienced.
Many have suggested that Cronulla's premiership window slammed shut with Holmes' departure but a Sharks side flying under the radar is as dangerous as you get.
Who to watch: Against his former club, look for Jesse Ramien to prove he is exactly what Newcastle has been missing in recent years. While boasting a more-than-capable three-quarter line, the Knights have been crying out for an explosive centre who can burst through holes and play off the back of Pearce and Ponga. And after scoring 10 tries in a breakout 2018, Ramien provides the Novocastrians with just that. He should be a certain starter for the entire season but may face some competition from injured back Tautau Moga.
Cronulla's backrow stocks appear thin without Lewis and Graham. Both were mainstays in the Sharks pack, hard workers with just the right amount of flair. They are replaced by Kurt Capewell and debutant Briton Nikora. Capewell has proven himself before in first grade as a solid performer, whose greatest asset is his versatility. Nikora, however, is untested in the top level and with Graham slated for a mid-season return, he will be vying against the already established Capewell to demand selection.
My tip: The Knights will certainly live up to their expectations but it may take time. Cronulla, despite a disruptive off-season, are still a classy outfit and their polish should see them home. Sharks by 10.
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