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Three straight wooden spoons now consigned to the history books, Rob Crosby looks at how the Newcastle Knights will reinvent themselves in 2018.
Having hit rock bottom and rebuilt the foundations of what is required to be competitive in the NRL, the Newcastle Knights will head into 2018 with a level of expectation rarely sighted following the arrival of Nathan Brown two seasons ago. Taking a proactive recruitment approach in order to strengthen deficiencies that have plagued the side in recent years, the inclusion of experienced campaigners and rising stars complemented by the consistent development of local juniors should ensure the side pushes for a place in the finals.
After a devastating 2016 campaign shattered illusions of an immediate fix under Nathan Brown, tempered expectations sought to lift the side off the bottom of the ladder with greater consistency in their performances. While the latter could be seen as an overall success, an overreliance on players in their first grade infancy meant another 16th placed finish was ultimately inevitable despite valiant efforts late in the year resulting in a run of three straight wins, including an inspired upset over an in-form Parramatta outfit.
Boasting few players with more than 50 first grade appearances, the likes of Brock Lamb, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Danny Levi, Josh King and the Safiti twins were called upon to carry the burden of injury, suspension and player departures, yet in spite of the adversity, the improvements made throughout 2017 were transformative in comparison to the displays produced 12 months earlier.
As a result of the trials endured by the young Newcastle charges over the past two seasons, the resilience imbued among the playing group should serve as a source of strength for years to come, while the additions of dual premiership winner Chris Heighington, Queensland mainstay Jacob Lillyman, highly touted youngsters Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson, along with Mitchell Pearce, arguably the highest profile signing in the club's history, should provide the class needed to turn the side's efforts into on-field success.
Beginning 2018 with a home clash against arch rivals Manly, the Knights will be well-travelled over the opening two months of the season with six of their first eight matches away from Newcastle. With the side unlikely to be hindered by representative selection, an away fixture against Parramatta in Round 13 will be the lone occasion the side departs McDonald Jones Stadium during the Origin period, with a run of five home matches and a bye set to give Nathan Brown the best possible platform to lead the Knights towards an unlikely September campaign. Rounding out the regular season with a trio of road trips before the traditional Old Boy's Day fixture in Round 25 against St. George Illawarra, the Knights will be hopeful of making the best of a draw that features away trips to Canberra, Townville and New Zealand, along with return clashes against top eight finalists Cronulla, Manly, Penrith, Parramatta, Sydney and Melbourne.
While on-field successes have been few and far between in recent seasons, the trait Newcastle supporters have been endeared to during the tough times is the culture of resilience instilled in the playing group. With so many young players unable to maintain the intensity required to produce 80-minute first grade standard performances, the lessons learnt from the pain of second half collapses against the Dragons and Bulldogs have created a resolve in the playing group that every win must be earned through the collective efforts of the team, rather than the singular performance of the individual player. With the current roster grasping the club ethos of ‘be the player everyone wants to play with', combined with the addition of experienced campaigners arriving from highly successful clubs, there is a sense of intrinsic belief and responsibility that success is not afforded to those unwilling to put in the effort.
In the NRL era only three teams have achieved premiership success after missing the finals the previous season. While the 2018 Knights may optimistically draw comparisons to the youthful Penrith / Wests Tigers triumphs and cheque book success of the Roosters, in all likelihood the lack of cohesion throughout the playing group will take time to produce consistent wins, let alone premiership glory. Much like recent years where expectations have been lowered in accordance with the ability of the side, the Knights should put their premiership credentials into perspective and recognise the qualities the likes of Melbourne and North Queensland have developed over time and strive to attain a similar trajectory in their performances, rather than retain the misguided perception that the current roster is capable of instantly replicating the glory days of the club - the exact trait that led the Knights to a decade of mediocrity culminating in the realisation a reboot was necessary.
With two distinct segments of the Newcastle playing group vying for maximum attention, the player who stands to make the greatest contribution to the Knights fortunes in 2018 is neither exciting rookie Kalyn Ponga or veteran playmaker Mitchell Pearce, but rather utility forward Jamie Buhrer. Shifting to the Hunter after a successful career with Manly, the 28-year-old former Origin representative brings a wealth of experience as well as a selfless ability to improve the players around him to the greater benefit of the team as a whole. Predominantly known as an edge forward, Buhrer's decision to alleviate the pressure on hooker Danny Levi in the final third of 2017 resulted in the Knights producing their finest football in recent times, while simultaneously allowing Lachlan Fitzgibbon the platform to flourish in first grade. With Newcastle boasting a squad comprised of rising talent and established campaigners, the experience and versatility of Jamie Buhrer will be invaluable in ensuring the best possible on-field results.
While the days of a dozen debutants coming into the first grade squad are well behind the Knights under Nathan Brown's watch, several youngsters will by vying for their maiden NRL appearances in 2018. Among the leading contenders in line to debut, goal-kicking speedster Nick Meaney will be hoping his experience in reserve grade holds him in strong stead for a call up should a void need to be filled in the backline. Primarily known as a fullback, the Knights reigning ISP Player of the Year will face tough opposition from Kalyn Ponga, Nathan Ross and Connor Watson in securing the custodian role, but with the departures of Dane Gagai, Brendan Elliot and Peter Mata'utia vacating backline positions, the 20-year-old will be hopeful of earning a call up at some stage throughout the year. Other rookies eager to make the step up include Pasami Saulo, a 19-year-old prop who was included on an extended first grade bench late in 2017, along with Jack Johns, an Italian representative utility and son of club legend Matthew Johns.
Gains | Herman Ese'ese, Tautau Moga (Broncos), Slade Griffin (Storm), Aidan Guerra, Mitchell Pearce & Connor Watson (Roosters), Christian Hazard (Redcliffe), Chris Heighington (Sharks), Jacob Lillyman (Warriors), Brent Naden (Raiders), Kalyn Ponga (Cowboys)
Losses | Brendan Elliot & Jack Stockwell (Titans), Jaelen Feeney (Townsville), Dane Gagai & Jacob Gagan (Rabbitohs), Rory Kostjasyn, Anthony Tupou, Sam Mataora, Josh Starling (retired), Peter Mata'utia (Leigh), Mickey Paea (Hull FC), Pauli Pauli & Tyler Randell (Wakefield), Joe Wardle (Castleford)