Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles preview
3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Having endured a turbulent rebuild filled with crushing losses and ever-increasing gains, the Newcastle Knights are set to announce their intentions as a formidable opponent off the back of an impressive recruitment drive and a greater share of luck on the injury front.
Alluding to signs of bigger things in 2018 only for a costly run of injuries to prevent their best players from consistently taking the field together, an 11th placed finish highlighted the strides taken following a hat-trick of wooden spoons, yet having started the year with five wins over the opening eight rounds, a meagre four further victories left many to ponder what could have been.
Following on from the active recruitment drive that enticed Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga to the Hunter twelve months earlier, the addition of nine new faces headlined by formidable Kangaroos prop David Klemmer and rising star centre Jesse Ramien has allowed coach Nathan Brown to realise a roster capable of competing with the NRL elite, while giving the former Dragons mentor little room for leeway should another mediocre season occur.
Beginning the new campaign in the polarising Friday 6pm timeslot against Cronulla, the Knights will be banking on a fast start with five matches at McDonald Jones Stadium during the opening seven rounds. Likely to be impacted by representative football more heavily than recent years, away fixtures against the Roosters, Storm, Rabbitohs, Warriors and Raiders should prove telling in the run home, while having been drawn a single incumbent top eight finalist over the closing seven rounds, the traditional Old Boy's Day contest against the Titans should serve as the perfect occasion for Newcastle to secure a return to the play-offs for the first time since 2013.
Having fielded teams rife with players blooded before their time as part of the rebuild, the days of Newcastle being ‘boys against men' are long gone as a result of Nathan Brown assembling the finest overall roster since the club's halcyon days. Boasting a premiership winning halfback, a forward pack filled with players coming into their prime, outside backs known for scoring tries and the unparalleled talent of Kalyn Ponga, the Knights loom as a side capable of moving into the upper echelon of teams - especially given the generation defining departures of Thurston and Slater.
Despite a concerted effort to recruit established players as depth in the event of another costly injury toll, the Knights' success will be largely reliant upon the fitness of their first-choice halfback and captain. While most clubs rely heavily upon a healthy number seven to direct play, the significance of Mitchell Pearce's presence within the playing ranks can be viewed as a double-edged sword - at his best the players around him are made better, while in his absence the lack of a steadying force has been known to leave the side frazzled (especially in defence).
The continued development of Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson along with the recruitment of Mason Lino and Kurt Mann may place the side in better standing should another lengthy sideline stint befall the premiership-winning playmaker, but for all the contingencies taken their final ladder position will almost certainly be shaped by Pearce enjoying a prosperous and injury-free season.
Almost certain to have claimed the Dally M medal if not for an unfortunate run of injuries over the final third of the season, Kalyn Ponga will be out to prove 2018 was no fluke while taking on the added responsibility of defending in the frontline as Nathan Brown's first-choice five-eighth. Experiencing a first full season in the NRL unlike any other in recent memory, the 20-year-old can expect to be targeted relentlessly by opponents given his game-breaking capabilities, but as he proved in his eye-catching representative debut for Queensland after just 24 first grade appearances, the pressure of performing with expectation has yet to faze the young prodigy.
After fielding 15 rookies over the previous three seasons, the likelihood of another major influx of debutants seems unlikely in 2019. Of the young guns on the precipice of earning a first grade call up, 20-year-old second rower Beau Fermor looks set to come into contention as the reigning Jersey Flegg Player of the Year, while also helping Queensland claim a maiden victory in the annual Under 20s State of Origin fixture.
Having been recruited from Canterbury's triumphant State Championship squad, Zac Woolford will be hoping to solve the Knights uncertain hooker situation, while 18-year-old halfback Phoenix Crossland looms as a dark horse playmaking option should injuries mount.
Gains: Tim Glasby (Storm), Hymel Hunt (Rabbitohs), Jesse Ramien, Edrick Lee (Sharks), Kurt Mann (Dragons), Mason Lino, James Gavet (Warriors), David Klemmer, Zac Woolford (Bulldogs).
Losses: Chris Heighington, Jacob Lillyman (retired), Brock Lamb (Roosters), Cory Denniss (Rabbitohs), JJ Collins (Raiders), Jack Cogger, Nick Meaney (Bulldogs), Ken Sio (Salford), Luke Yates (London), Pat Mata'utia (released).