during the round 11 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Penrith Panthers at McDonald Jones Stadium on May 21, 2017 in Newcastle, Australia.

2017 saw a big improvement on 2016 yet ultimately saw the Knights collect a third straight wooden spoon. Newcastle were far more competitive across the season than in years gone by and can see 2017 as a building block/stepping stone to much bigger things.

Nathan Brown has shown he is the man for the job and has improved his players. Plenty of talented youngsters were either given debuts, or wracked up some important games during the 2017 season. Brown led a fierce recruitment drive and targeted some game changing players.

Most of the talk for 2018 will be about the ‘ins’ and there are some exciting players plying their trade a few hours north of Sydney in 2018, but the efforts of some of Newcastle’s players in 2017 should not be lost.

Mitch Barnett is a genuine work horse with real talent. Sione Mata’utia has turned into a clever back rower and once his injury concerns are over will be a real weapon. Dani Levi improved out of sight and now has four international caps to his name. Nathan Ross has emerged as one of the game’s most exciting players. I can’t wait to see him with more ball in hand as a result of a new halves pairing.

Recruitment Grading: A

The Knights needed to attract a superstar to supplement their otherwise clever recruitment drive, and they achieved just that when they announced New South Wales halfback Mitchell Pearce. Pearce will partner former Roosters teammate Connor Watson in the halves, with future star in the making Kalyn Ponga rounding out a third improvement in the Newcastle spine. Tautau Moga is also a huge get out wide, while Aidan Guerra, Jacob Lillyman and Herman Ese’ese are big ins up front. Chris Heighington will add valuable experience coming off the bench. What looked like a good recruitment drive turned into an excellent one with the signing of premiership winning halfback Pearce.

Star Player: Mitchell Pearce

For all the fun we have at his expense at rep level, Pearce is a quality halfback. The Sharks and Manly chased him hard but ultimately Newcastle presented him an opportunity to cement his legacy. Frozen out by the Roosters, Pearce will be looking for a monster 2018. Playing beside former Roosters teammates Watson and Guerra will make the switch easier, but the Knights need to allow their star to settle in. Armed with weapons like Ponga, Moga and Ross, there is plenty of cause or excitement on the Hunter. Pearce will be the Knight’s general, something they haven’t had for many seasons. His kicking game is first class and will allow Newcastle to dictate where and at what pace the game is played moving forward. He’s arguably the most valuable signing for 2018. Newcastle fans can, rightly, expect a lot. It’ll take time but no doubt this is a special moment for the club’s future.

Strength: Attacking weapons

For the first time in a long time the Knights have a list of weapons in the back line. Ponga, Kenny-Dowall, Ross, and Moga will likely make up four of the back five positions with Watson and Pearce in the halves. Throw in a more experienced Levi and the likes of Guerra, Buhrer and Mata’utia and the Newcastle side start to look far more dangerous than in years gone by. The Knights have struggled in defense for as long as I can remember so the likes of Lillyman, Guerra and Heighington should be able to take the defensive pressure off the smaller players allow them to focus more on attack. Things are positive for the red and blue.

Weakness: Inexperienced spine

For all the undoubted talent possessed by Kalyn Ponga, Danny Levi and Connor Watson, they’ve only played 9, 49, and 38 games at NRL level respectively. Most of Watson’s games would have come from the bench, while Levi hasn’t played 80 minutes too often either. Pearce’s arrival will surely quicken the process but fans need to be patient. Errors will be part of their game, errant passes and kicks will happen, and only games together will help them built to what they want to achieve. Opposition teams will know the Knights will look to Pearce in pressure situations and will target him. Watson especially doesn’t need to over play his hand too early.

Prediction: 9th

I see a massive improvement from the Knights in 2018 but I just can’t see them making finals football just yet. I think if they can recruit another star or two moving forward they’ll see plenty of finals footy in years to come but 2018 may be a season early.

Pearce is a genuine game changer. Without the star halfback it’s likely Newcastle would be in the bottom five but his arrival means a great deal. Connor Watson is an early pick for young signing of the year. This kid is a genuine freak.

If Watson isn’t, then Ponga may very well be. Arguably one of the most talented young players, and certainly one of the most exciting, Ponga has every skill imaginable. His efforts for the Cowboys were incredible considering he debuted in a sudden death final, out of position no less.

Get excited Knights fans. 2018 will be a bumper season. Moga will score plenty, Ross will run riot, and Ponga and Watson will set the competition alight.

It’s just one season too early to be talking finals footy just yet.

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