After making their second finals appearance in as many years under Adam O’Brien, the Knights will be hoping to improve on their finals fortunes in 2022, and begin to take the next step in their chase for a premiership.
The 2021 season was a roller coaster for the Newcastle Knights, that, before round 20, only saw them string together back to back wins on two occasions.
With six weeks left in the regular season they were sitting 11th on the ladder and faced a challenging run of games against teams around them on the ladder that they simply had to win if they were to feature in September.
Against all odds they managed to find some consistent form winning five of their final six games to barnstorm their way to seventh position.
Despite such a strong end to the season, the Knights were no match for the Eels in the first week of the finals.
Injuries to key players meant the Knights offensive output was significantly down in 2021, only scoring 428 points for the season, ranked 15th in the competition.
While their attack often looked lacklustre, the Knights were able to reintegrate Kalyn Ponga into the team after missing a large chunk of 2020 with injury, and mid-season recruit Jake Clifford showed he was ready to lead the team from the halves.
Dane Gagai (Rabbitohs), Adam Clune (Dragons)
Mitchell Pearce (Catalans), Connor Watson (Roosters), Josh King (Storm), Gehamat Shibasaki (Japanese rugby), Blake Green (retired), Starford To’a (Wests Tigers)
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Hooker Jayden Brailey will miss the season after tearing his achilles at the beginning of the preseason. However, replacement Chris Randall has looked good in his preparation to take over the dummy-half role.
Lachlan Fitzgibbon (shoulder), Mitchell Barnett (groin) and Bradman Best (thumb) all had offseason surgeries but have progressed nicely in their recovery and look set to be ready for round one.
While Kurt Mann and Phoenix Crossland have both put on considerable size as O’Brien looks to add some agility and skill into the lock position in order to create more offence.
What to expect
The Knights defence was a feature of their end of season form last year, so expect that to be no different in 2022, especially with the addition of Maroons centre Dane Gagai.
Despite their strength on the defensive side of the ball, O’Brien has already showed through the trials a preparedness to find ways to attack off the back of it.
He has already signalled that Mann will start the season at lock with his ability to pass the ball hopefully opening channels for Ponga and their mix of exciting young backs.
The addition of Adam Clune also already looks to have steadied the ship. The experienced halfback looks settled in the team, and his dependability in the kicking game should allow Clifford to show off his playmaking abilities both with passing and kicking.
It’s a big year for?
Since arriving at the Knights Kurt Mann has been the teams Mr Fix It, filling various positions without being able to lockdown a spot in the Knights starting team.
However, 2022 could prove to be the year that he finally settles down into a specific position.
With O’Brien looking for a way to spark their attack, Mann will get first crack at the lock position with the hope that his passing ability will be able to find some holes in opposition defences.
In the Knights second trial against the Storm, Mann showed off how effective he can be in the position making 2021’s second best defence look second rate at times.
With Ponga assessing his options for 2023 and beyond, O’Briens use of Mann to free up the new skipper could help determine his future at the club.
Biggest unanswered question
How to turn defence into attack?
The Knights spent a lot of time defending in 2021, but failed to generate a lot points going back the other way.
While injuries at certain points to Ponga, Best and Mitchell Pearce didn’t help O’Brien formulate his attacking style of play, the Knights didn’t show enough signs of being dangerous around the oppositions try line.
The injury to Brailey has really thrown a spanner in the works as he had cemented himself as one of the best defensive hookers in the game who was ready to take the next step in his game. A lot now falls on the shoulders of Ponga, Clifford, Clune and Mann.
In a boost for O’Brien, young winger Enari Tuala took a big step forward in his development towards the end of last season scoring eight of his 13 tries in the final six games of the season.
If Tuala along with some of the Knights exciting young backs including Dominic Young and Hymel Hunt can up their try output in 2022, that will go a long way in increasing the offensive power of the Knights.
Coach pressure index
After two seasons in charge of the Knights the pressure is officially on for O’Brien.
Despite consecutive finals appearances the Knights have been bundled out in the first weeks both years. While those seasons have been anything but conventional due to COVID-19, Knights fans and administration will be expecting to see some more improvement in 2022.
O’Brien remains contracted with the Knights until the end of 2024 signalling there is still some patience left for the first-time coach, but if there is no improvement, that patience will soon run out.
Predicted round one lineup
The Knights should enter round one with a lot of their first choice starters fit and healthy.
Tuala and Young should get first crack on the wings but once Hunt returns from a knee injury expect him to put the pressure on in reserve grade.
Crossland is another who could get a look in early with his added bulk and past playing the backline, he could provide O’Brien with some x-factor off the bench if required.
8th – 12th
It remains to be seen how far the Knights can go in 2022. Many punters are of the belief that they are a chance for the wooden spoon come the end of the season.
However, with more than enough experience in their squad, the Knights should be around the mark again.
However, if they can’t work out a way to cross the line for more tries that may be harder than first thought.
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