AFTER three straight wooden spoons, the future all of a sudden looks bright for the Knights.
Here’s five reasons to get excited about Newcastle next season.
After a string of near-misses, the Knights finally hit pay dirt with a big-name recruit for season 2018. Cooper Cronk’s arrival at the Sydney Roosters proved Pearce’s pain, but Newcastle’s gain with the long-term tri-colours No.7 opting to leave the only club he’s known and hitch his wagon to the Nathan Brown rebuild project.
The marquee signing has instantly lifted the mood around the club and the Knights have since attracted a flurry of money to make the top eight. For all of his State of Origin woes, Pearce is an accomplished halfback at NRL level. What’s more, he comes to the Knights with a point to prove. At 28 and coming into what should be his prime, a change of scenery at a hungry Knights club could rejuvenate his whole career.
Newcastle might have missed out on a host of big-name recruits for 2018 but they secured their biggest signing before the 2017 season even began. Kalyn Ponga is the most highly-touted junior player in an age. He’ll only turn 20 after next season begins and he’s played just nine first grade matches in two seasons for the Cowboys, but he’s the kind of player the club can dream on.
It’s been a tough few years for the Knights faithful, but in Ponga they have a player who can lead them out of the darkness. The pressure will be on Ponga from the jump, and such pressure has crippled players in the past, but he certainly has the talent to succeed. If nothing else, he’ll give the Knights an excitement factor they’ve lacked over the last few years.
Do you remember the Bulldogs-Knights game from last season? The one where they played at Belmore and the Knights seemed to have it won, only for Brock Lamb’s kick to get deflected into the arms of Moses Mbye who raced 75m to score? And then, when the Knights got a penalty that could have levelled the scores Lamb had a chance to atone for his error but his shot at goal was the worst shank of 2017? Lamb had shown flashes of ability at that point but that seemed to be a moment that could cripple his season.
Instead, Lamb was the focal point of Newcastle’s stirring late-season revival. In their three matches from Round 21 to 23, Lamb led the Knights to three wins, had five try assists, two line breaks, four line break assists, three tries and a field goal. He was the best player on the field in their 29-10 win over Parramatta, their best performance of the season, and his combination with young forward Lachlan Fitzgibbon is already strong. It was a sparkling period for Lamb, and a mark of the potential that has always surrounded the Maitland junior. The arrival of Pearce should take the pressure off Lamb and allow the young half to continue his development.
For the first time in a long time, the Knights have choices to make heading into the pre-season. In the forward pack along they have to decide on who starts out of Daniel Saifiti, Mitchaell Barnett, Herman Ese’ese, Jacob Lillyman, Josh King and Chris Heighington in the middle and Jamie Buhrer, Aidan Guerra, Sione Mata’utia and Fitzgibbon on the edge. Exciting new recruit Connor Watson could challenge Brock Lamb for a starting spot in the halves.
There’s more talent in the group than there has been in several seasons.
Having choice and competition for spots is something Newcastle have lacked in recent years and it’s showed. When there’s true competition for starting spot and game time it can push the entire playing group to a higher level and should help the Knights avoid a fourth wooden spoon in a row.
Lamb was the late season star but Danny Levi was the most impressive young Knights player over the course of the entire season. The Kiwi hooker has endured a torrid time during the early stages of his NRL career – he’s won six of his 49 career matches – but he began to look really comfortable towards the midpoint of the season.
Once Brown made a key switch with him and Jamie Buhrer (whereby Buhrer played the opening quarter at hooker and Levi played 60 minutes straight from the bench) unlocked the running game that made Levi such a dangerous player in underage football.
Levi was subsequently named in New Zealand’s World Cup squad and seems to be the future at hooker for the Kiwis. In addition to his excellent running game, Levi has a great understanding of when to take on lazy defenders at marker. He’s the most polished of the Knights young spine players and could be a rock for the club for several years to come.