Off the back of a bumper two-year recruitment drive that resulted in a stunning squad turnover, pundits and fans alike have tipped the Newcastle Knights for a long overdue return to the top eight. However, I’ve come up with a few reasons below to detail why those calls could prove to be impulsive.
- The Spine
While on the surface there doesn’t seem to be many problems with the Knights’ all-important spine, a little extra scratching under the surface has led me to some questions about the four men that comprise the most important positions in the team.
First and foremost, there are plenty of questions surrounding Connor Watson and his suitability to the fullback role at Newcastle. While I have previously argued that this move could be for the betterment of the team, that was due to Kalyn Ponga seeing more ball at five-eighth rather than Watson being more suited to the fullback role.
Don’t get me wrong, Watson is an extremely dangerous runner of the ball, but that run-first mentality is not what is required of fullbacks in today’s game. You can see that in the way Josh Dugan has been made to transition from fullback to centre, due to his inability to provide the final pass.
This is because fullbacks are primarily used as a second five-eighth, to provide another ball-playing and kicking option out the back of set plays. These two aforementioned all-important attributes for a modern fullback are noticeably missing from Watson’s game.
Displayed by the fact that he averaged a measly 17 kicking metres per game and registered only four try assists in his 15 appearances in 2018.
From all reports, Watson has also had two extremely under-whelming trial matches at fullback. Specifically struggling under the high ball against the Dragons and being subject to a number of handling errors against the Sharks. One of which came off a Matt Moylan chip kick which would result in a try to Sharks flyer Josh Morris after pouncing on Watson’s fumble.
The second problem, hookers. After suffering his fourth ACL rupture in his five-year NRL career, first choice hooker Slade Griffin is set to sit out the majority of season 2019. Which leaves Newcastle’s hooking options at Danny Levi, Zac Woolford, and Kurt Mann.
You would think the four times capped New Zealand Kiwi Danny Levi would suffice, but he doesn’t seem to be in coach Nathan Brown’s plans following his request for a release and the much-publicised chase and eventual acquisition of ex-Dragon Kurt Mann.
Which draws the question, why would Brown rather sign and convert a utility back (Mann) into a hooker rather than trust the internationally capped Levi?
It seems that the livewire Levi does not fit the bill for the style of hooker that Nathan brown desires.
This notion is also displayed by the way in which Brown utilised Griffin prior to his injury. Mainly as a distributor to his forwards and halves, as well as being asked to make upwards of 35 tackles per game, not leaving much room for creativity and spark from dummy half.
So that leaves Newcastle’s hooking options for 2018 at a converted utility back, a rookie, and a player who seemingly doesn’t have the trust of his coach.
This may be perceived as a bit left-field to some, but another potential headache for the Knights could be their marquee man and captain Mitchell Pearce.
While he experienced somewhat of a resurgence in form prior to his long-term pectoral injury, let’s not forget that this is still the same man who has been much maligned throughout his career for the inability to perform in the big games, typified by his consistent lacklustre performances at Origin level, despite ample opportunities.
While Pearce’s defence at the top level has never been amiss, his general play kicking and game management have often come under scrutiny. Following the announcement out of the Hunter that Pearce will be Newcastle’s captain in 2019 and having been handed the attacking keys to the team by coach Nathan Brown, let us not forget what happened back in 2017 when then Blues coach Laurie Daley gave Pearce complete ownership of the team… Just a hint, the Blues blew multiple chances to close out games and eventually lost the series 2-1.
Another aspect that ought to be considered is Pearce’s new halves partner, Kalyn Ponga. While on paper the combination has the potential to be mouth-watering, there are still a lot of questions hanging over the heads of the pair.
The most successful periods of Pearce’s career have seen him paired with an either more dominant or mature player in the halves, players such as Braith Anasta, James Maloney and even Todd Carney immediately spring to mind.
And while Ponga absolutely has the potential to out-do all of the above in terms of career achievements, it’s yet to be seen what type of five-eighth he will be. Ponga’s off the cuff and laid-back style might not suit the former Blues halfback.
While the jury is still out in regard to Ponga switching from fullback to five-eighth in 2019, he is probably the least concern for Newcastle and their spine.
Mainly because of the sheer talent the young star possesses, he’s simply a footballer. By that I mean his talent and knack for the game are so superior that you could put him anywhere and he would do a job for his team, particularly displayed in his 52-minute stint at lock in Origin 2.
Another aspect of concern for the Knights’ squad is a lack of high-quality leaders. In analysing their squad, which admittedly is still extremely young, I could only really find four players that could be considered (some loosely) leaders. Namely, current captain Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra, David Klemmer, and Jamie Buhrer.
Pearce has seen it all in his long career, being the youngest player to ever rack up 200 NRL games in the NRL. His in-game intelligence, communication ability, and lead by example mantra in defence made him an obvious candidate.
Although Pearce is a more than capable option as skipper, I would have picked Aidan Guerra to lead the Knights going forward. Because of both his qualities as a leader and his durability.
Guerra is coming off his finest season in a long time in the NRL, having played in every game for Newcastle in 2018. He showed a propensity to lead by example at lock by being at the forefront Newcastle’s line speed, as well as regularly being vocal with his teammates during breaks in play.
Klemmer and Buhrer have a few more questions surrounding their suitability to leadership than the aforementioned pair. While Buhrer is no doubt a leader in the group due to his vast experience, it is highly unlikely he will regularly feature for Newcastle with the depth of talent ahead of him.
As for Klemmer, while he will lead by example with his aggressive and in-your-face style of play, he has never held any formal leadership position and his ability to keep a cool head in stressful situations does not seem to be his finest quality.
- Lack of Experience
This may seem a strange statement following the large squad turn-over that has resulted in the acquisition of many experienced players. Although Newcastle’s average squad age is a reasonable 24.7, and the average number of games player across their entire squad is 64.8, but they are thin on experience where it really counts, finals time.
Bar Pearce, Guerra, Klemmer, Buhrer and Tim Glasby, there is virtually no finals experience amongst the rest of the roster.
The importance of which cannot be overstated when it gets to the pointy end of the year. Because, if they get to that stage the young Knights roster would have already played 25 rounds and most likely experienced a few injuries between them that could alter the make-up of their side.
Whether or not they have the maturity, and ability to deal with these setbacks at a time of the year when other commitments outside of football (such as increased media duties) for an out of Sydney team is a big question for this young and talented roster.
Admittedly, I am really playing devil’s advocate in writing this piece, as I personally would love and have tipped the Knights to scrap into the top eight.
But in light of the recent feel-good atmosphere returning to the Hunter which has been followed by widespread praise for the seemingly rejuvenated organisation, I thought it could be interesting to dig under the surface a little and see whether the praises being sung of the Knights were warranted.
Although on paper Newcastle has an extremely solid roster with a lot of upside and potential, let us not forget that this is a young squad that has only really experienced the worst of what rugby league has to offer, and is yet to display any real positive consistency in the past four years.
There are still teething questions to be answered in regard to their spine, leadership group and the lack of finals experience across the squad.
You can see whether or not Newcastle are able to answer those questions positively when they take on the Sharks next Friday the 15th of March at McDonald Jones Stadium.