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Qualifying for the finals for the first time since 2013 was the highlight of the Newcastle Knights 2020 season, but it still felt somewhat sombre after losing by 26-points to the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the first week of finals.
2020 started brilliantly for the Knights, winning three of their opening four matches, including a big 16-point victory over a strong Canberra Raiders side. However, the Knights struggled to string together consecutive wins throughout the competition, highlighting their inconsistent play on a week-to-week basis. For example, a 21-point victory over the Brisbane Broncos was followed by a 12-poing loss to the North Queensland Cowboys and later in the year, a 2-point victory over the Rabbitohs lead to a 6-point loss to the Canterbury Bulldogs.
However, the Knights had plenty to cheer about as the mining town occupied a spot in the top eight for the entirety of the competition. It was also the first time since 2013 that the Knights had both, a winning record and scored more points than they conceded. Newcastle will once again be looking to improve on this and the addition of New South Wales back rower, Tyson Frizell to the squad will hold them in good stead for the 2021 season.
The Knights possess some elite talent amongst their ranks with the likes of Kalyn Ponga, David Klemmer, Bradman Best and Tyson Frizell, just to name a few. They possess a total of six players who have represented New South Wales or Queensland at some stage in their careers, including two during the 2020 series.
Fullback Kalyn Ponga was one to miss Origin last year due to injury, but his 2020 season was one of his best yet. In just 19 games, Ponga scored 10 tries whilst also assisting a career high 14 tries in 2020. Ponga will miss the opening few games of the season as he recovers from a shoulder injury, but he'll be fired up and ready to go for another season in the blue and red.
The experience of Mitchell Pearce will be invaluable as the former Origin and Premiership winner who played a large role in his side's performances during the 2020 season. His kicking game will be pivotal to a successful season for the Knights, with the halfback recording 10 forced dropouts last season and 15 in 2019. Pearce will have to consistently string performances together if the Knights are to push for the title, something which he failed to do during the 2020 season.
The aforementioned addition of Tyson Frizell will bolster the Newcastle forward pack after the Australian backrower averaged a career high, 126 run metres per game. The Frizell and Ponga combination will be a scary proposition for oppositions defences as both are very dangerous runners of the football, with Frizzell averaging 2.3 tackle breaks per game. Frizell could be the extra 'oomph' that the Knights have been looking for in their edge rowers, someone who is a genuinely hard man to tackle.
The Knights' hooker, Jayden Brailey will be available for Round 1 (barring any trial drama) after missing the majority of 2020 after a knee injury sidelined him for the last 18 matches. Brailey looked promising in his two games with the Knights recording a try assist, a forced drop out and averaging 40 tackles per match. At just 24 years of age, Brailey still has time to improve and from what he has shown so far in his career, he could be a handy player in the near future.
The Knights struggled with consistency during the 2020 season, as highlighted earlier by their failure to produced produce back-to-back wins at crucial times during the season. This could be attributed to the inconsistent performances of Mitchell Pearce throughout the year, who will have to perform at a much more consistent level if the Knights are to improve on last season. However, this has been an issue for the majority of Pearce's career, particularly at Origin level. Who is to say that it might just be another inconsistent year for Pearce as he guides his side to a 6-8 place on the competition ladder. Similar statements can be made about Ponga who has been criticised in the past for his inconsistent performances, and when both players are off, it's not great viewing for Knights' fans.
Newcastle's defence was a funny one during the 2020 season. They conceded the second least points at home, averaging just 11.6 points conceded per game but conceded on average 25.8 points away from home, the fourth most in the competition. If Adam O'Brien has done everything he can to help improve his side's defence over the off-season, then it'll be much of the same for the Knights in 2021.
Based on the 2020 ladder, Newcastle have arguably the best start of any club. Their first five games are all against bottom-eight teams, starting with Canterbury at home. They also welcome the Tigers and Dragons while they'll travel to Gosford to face the Warriors and then up to the Gold Coast. Things get a little dicier by the time ANZAC Day rolls around, facing Penrith, the Roosters and Raiders in quick succession.
The Origin period is equally tricky - the Knights face Parramatta and Souths either side of Game 1, and after enjoying the bye before Game 3 will head south to AAMI Park to face the reigning premiers Melbourne - with the Roosters and Raiders immediately after.
Thankfully the run home is similar to the opening rounds - Canterbury and the Titans feature again, as well as two Brisbane clashes and a meeting with the middling Sharks.
It goes without saying, but Kalyn Ponga is one of the key players for the Knights in 2021. One of the most exciting players in the competition and at just the age of 22, there is plenty more to come from the young fullback. Ponga's third season at the Knights saw him average a career high 184 run metres whilst breaking on average 5.9 tackles per game, proving that he is an extremely elusive player when he's at his best. The fullback's edge combinations with Mitchell Barnett and Frizell are going to be critical to the Knights success during the 2021 season.
Other players such as Frizell, Pearce and Bradman Best will be pivotal to the Knights 2021 season, but arguably not as pivotal as David Klemmer's involvement in the side. Klemmer has been the heartbreak for the Knights' pack over the past two years, averaging 172 run metres and 37.4 tackles per game. The front rower is an absolute work horse who will leave everything out there for his side each week. This is highlighted with his 72.9 post contact metres per game during the 2020 season, the fourth highest tally in the competition. Klemmer lays the foundation for the flashier players in the side and this'll be no different in 2021.
Bradman Best exploded onto the scene last season as an 18-year-old and will be expected to be a mainstay during 2021. 2021 could be the year for Tex Hoy who will start at fullback during the first few games of the season due to the absence of Ponga. The 21-year-old made nine appearances last year, mainly off the bench, but was excellent in his two starts at the back. His two starts at fullback saw Hoy run for more than 180 metres and breaking a combined total of 9 tackles. A solid return for such a young player. Unfortunately, his involvement his year is reliant upon injuries to starting players so we might not get to see too much of Hoy, but when we do, let's enjoy it.
Young 19-year-old Bailey Hodgson will also be one to watch if he is given his chance this year. The outside back was signed from Castleford Tigers at the end of 2020 and is the nephew of Canberra Raiders hooker, Josh Hodgson. There have been some raps on this young lad, but it seems like this is more of a long-term investment for the Knights. We'll have to wait and see.
IN: Tyson Frizell, Dominic Young, Sauaso Sue, Bailey Hodgson, Jack Johns, Brayden Musgrove
OUT: Herman Ese'ese, Aidan Guerra, Andrew McCullough, Sione Mata'utia, Mason Lino, Tautau Moga, Tyronne Roberts-Davis
1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Edrick Lee
3. Enari Tuala
4. Bradman Best
5. Hymel Hunt
6. Kurt Mann
7. Mitchell Pearce
8. Daniel Saifiti
9. Jayden Brailey
10. David Klemmer
11. Mitchell Barnett
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Connor Watson
14. Jacob Saifiti
15. Lachlan Fitzgibbon
16. Sauaso Sue
17. Phoenix Crossland