14/04/2024

Newcastle Knights ready to repeat last season's success. (Image: Newcastle Knights/X)

They finished 2023 on an upward trajectory, bowing out in Week 2 of the finals and boasting the reigning Dally M Medallist in Kalyn Ponga. Can they take the next step and become a top-four side?

2024 marks a year of expectation in the Hunter, territory unfamiliar to the current crop of Knights players, many expecting them to repeat last year’s efforts of knocking on the door of the Top 4.

Last Year

The Knights finished 2023 with serious momentum, winning their nine final regular season matches before making it 10 in a row with an extra time result over the Canberra Raiders in Week 1 of the finals. The back of the season somewhat masked a very clunky start to the year, so slow that they only spent one week inside the top 8 before Round 23.

The run home and his scintillating form during it saw Kalyn Ponga claim the Dally M medal, a fact which outlines their sheer reliance on their dominant custodian.

Squad Changes

Ins:  Jed Cartwright (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jack Cogger & Tom Jenkins (Penrith Panthers), Kai Pearce-Paul (Wigan Warriors, Super League), Will Pryce (Huddersfield Giants, Super League).

Outs: Dominic Young (Sydney Roosters), Lachlan Fitzgibbon (Warrington Wolves), Simi Sasagi (Canberra Raiders), Lachlan Miller (Leeds Rhinos, Super League), Fa’amanu Brown (Hull FC, Super League), Oryn Keeley (Dolphins), Kurt Mann (Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs), Dane Aukafolau (unsigned), Hymel Hunt (unsigned), Jack Johns (unsigned)

A significant departure lounge headlined by Dominic Young, the English winger became a breakout star in 2023 and will leave a significant void on the flank, both as a finisher and for the metres he paired with Greg Marzhew to produce out of their defensive end.

Kurt Mann’s utility value will also be missed, and Lachlan Fitzgibbon will leave a hole on the edge, with English signings Will Pryce & Kai Pearce Paul looking to be direct replacements. The Knights will rely on one if not both, acclimatising much more quickly than Dom Young did despite his second-season peak. Jack Cogger will also be in the utility and halves mix and add some depth on his return to Newcastle.

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Track Watch

The Knights hit the ground running in the trials against the Sharks with a comprehensive display that raised as many questions as it answered for Adam O’Brien. Strong showings from both Tyson Gamble & Jack Cogger in the trials means the status quo likely remains in Round 1, with Gamble having possession of the six jersey alongside Jackson Hastings.

The outside backs are much more unsettled, with much talk surrounding Tom Jenkins after he arrives from the Penrith Panthers. Enari Tuala was solid in the first hit out and can play on the wing or at centre, while Dane Gagai could be an option to shift to the wing and import Will Pryce to slot into the centres.

Dylan Lucas’ strong showing with a double against the Sharks potentially sees him put his nose in front to have the first bite at Lachlan Fitzgibbon’s vacated edge slot. Jed Cartwright will be another who will look to take a step towards being a consistent starter at NRL level with his move to the Hunter.

What To Expect

If the Knights can iron out their halves pairing early it will be the biggest step towards ensuring they are a finals contender. Like many other sides, their destiny will be very much determined by the fitness of their talisman reigning Dally M medallist Kalyn Ponga.

If they can find the best out of both Saifiti brothers (Daniel & Jacob) alongside the much improved Leo Thompson it will enable their side to play the front football that allowed their attacking prowess to shine in the back half of the season in 2023.

Adam O’Brien will be hoping his star outside backs former Test star Dane Gagai and NSW Origin talent Bradman Best can lead his backline as a unit to replace the tries and output of the departed Young, however, that is a big ask even shared amongst all four of their outside backs.

Consistency – this is the word that Novocastrians would love to be the label that their team owns in 2024. It has been the Achilles heel of the club across Adam O’Brien’s coaching tenure, with losing streaks undoing the work of their seemingly unpredictable purple patches. If the Knights can hold a level throughout the season they can be a top-four contender, but that if is the biggest query of all over this side.

It’s A Big Year For

Kalyn Ponga

The Knight’s custodian enters 2024 as the man with the biggest target on his back. Not only do other teams crucially know he is the lynchpin at the centre of the Knights’s success, but he has the title of 2023 Dally M Medallist.

Before last season’s back end, many pundits asked if Ponga had what it took to lead this Knights team after his second failed stint as a five-eight. He answered that in spades on the run home last year, surging with several match-winning performances, however he needs to sustain that if he is to prove himself as a talisman moving forward.

At his best, he is electric, but can he take more load on his shoulders with the departure of Newcastle’s leading try-scorer Dominic Young to help unlock the rest of his team’s potential? That is now the role that Kalyn is to play if he is to justify his price tag and deliver the Knights to the next stage of their development and eventually to a premiership.

Biggest Unanswered Question

Who are the best spine combinations to complement Kalyn Ponga?

One thing the Knights’s flurry to finish 2023 confirmed is that Ponga is an out-and-out fullback and needs to have a mortgage on that jersey. On possession of jerseys to finish the season on their run of 10 straight wins, you would assume that Tyson Gamble, Jackson Hastings & Phoenix Crossland are the answer.

However, the Knights have made long-term pre-emptive moves to bring in Will Pryce, whose favoured positions are fullback and five-eight, as well as making sure they lured Jack Cogger, off the back of a premiership in which he was a significant player on the grand final day, back to Newcastle. These moves are not made lightly, and these two will be throwing their hats in the ring.

On big moves, it took a huge shift to lure Jayden Brailey to the club four years ago and he had a mortgage on the hooking role before a horrendous run with injury, if he can get back fit you can be certain he will be scratching and clawing to get that nine jersey back from Phoenix Crossland.

Possession will likely be nine-tenths of the law for Round 1, with coach O’Brien expected to go with the incumbents to take on Canberra first up.

Coach Index

Low

Adam O’Brien has just signed a fresh three-year contract extension through the end of the 2027 season. As we know, however, contracts in the modern-day NRL, especially those of coaches, are barely worth the paper they are written on.

Barring a start more calamitous than the five-win, one-draw, nine-loss run that prefaced their ten-match winning streak in 2023, O’Brien should be one of the more stable coaches in the NRL. He has taken the side to the finals three times in the last four years, and that should be enough to solidify his ticket even should they miss the top 8 in 2024.

Predicted Round 1 Line Up

  1. Kalyn Ponga (c)
  2. Thomas Jenkins
  3. Dane Gagai
  4. Bradman Best
  5. Greg Marzhew
  6. Tyson Gamble
  7. Jackson Hastings
  8. Jacob Saifiti
  9. Phoenix Crossland
  10. Leo Thompson
  11. Tyson Frizell
  12. Kai Pearce Paul
  13. Adam Elliott

    Interchange
  14. Jack Cogger
  15. Daniel Saifiti
  16. Jack Hetherington
  17. Dylan Lucas

Incumbency is expected to play a large part in Adam O’Brien’s thinking regarding his Round 1 side, especially his starting 13. After watching the Knights hitouts in trials, several combinations wouldn’t surprise come Round 1.

It is a toss of the coin between new signing Tom Jenkins and the cohesion of Enari Tuala, who the Knights went with to start their second pre-season challenge match. Will Pryce could also be an option in the centres with Gagai to shift to wing, however, Gagai was much less effective wider out when he played there last season.

Gamble appears to have done enough to hold down the six jersey, and likewise, Phoenix Crossland at hooker. Jack Cogger’s versatility should see him lock down the bench utility role, but Will Pryce and Jayden Brailey could come into contention as spine or utility options as well.

In the forwards, expect one Saifiti to start and one off the bench, with Jacob having edged in front in the starting race. Dylan Lucas looks likely thanks to a strong finish to 2023 to get the first shot at the edge back row jersey that has been vacated, Kai Pearce Paul and Jed Cartwright are the other contenders here with Lucas strong in the trials it is expected he will start & KPP will be on the bench.

Ladder Prediction

5th to 8th

Expect much of the same for a Knights squad who, in reality, have one major loss to cover in Dom Young and will be a much better side for the experience of their run home in 2023. If they can get off to an OK start, they will build on last year and knock on the door of the Top 4 for big parts of the season.

Who will step up alongside Kalyn Ponga can determine a large portion of Newcastle’s destiny this season, if they can find some other breakout players this year, finishing in the Top 4 is not beyond them, failure to find any thought and they could easily slide out of finals contention – and fast.

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