NRL Rd 19 - Knights v Dragons
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 20: Newcastle Knights players celebrate a try during the round 19 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the St George Illawarra Dragons at McDonald Jones Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The Knights, after years in the wilderness, have finally worked their way back into the finals over the last two years, but there is still a long way to go to compete among the top echelon of teams.

It was their attack which was the main problem in 2022.

They certainly weren't helped along by injuries to key players, with Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce both seemingly spending more time on the sidelines than they spent on the park.

Daniel Saifiti also missed a chunk of the season, while their outside backs didn't settle until the back half of the season.

Jayden Brailey and Connor Watson were strong, but the latter of them has now departed the club, while Jake Clifford's arrival halfway through the season from the North Queensland Cowboys was always going to take time to gel.

So it's attack which Adam O'Brien's side need to improve in 2022 - of that there can be no doubt.

Newcastle Knights Training Session
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 06: Adam O'Brien coach of the Newcastle Knights during a Newcastle Knights NRL training session at Newcastle on February 06, 2020 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Pearce has been released so far without a replacement, and there are potentially other issues the Knights would love to fix if given the chance.

So, if we removed the salary cap and contract status from the competition, gave the Knights a blank contract form and unlimited spending potential, and allowed them to sign any player they wanted, who would it be?

Who would your club steal?
» Brisbane Broncos
» Canberra Raiders
» Canterbury Bulldogs
» Cronulla Sharks
» Gold Coast Titans
» Manly Sea Eagles
» Melbourne Storm

Current squad for 2022

Mitch Barnett, Bradman Best, Jayden Brailey, Jake Clifford, Adam Clune, Phoenix Crossland, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Tyson Frizell, Dane Gagai, Bailey Hodgson, Hymel Hunt, Jack Johns, Brodie Jones, Jacob Kiraz, David Klemmer, Kurt Mann, Jirah Momoisea, Brayden Musgrove, Kalyn Ponga, Chris Randall, Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Simi Sasagi, Pasami Saulo, Sauaso Sue, Starford To'a, Enari Tuala, Dominic Young.

The gaps in the Knights' best 17

Dane Gagai's arrival at the Knights fixes plenty of problems in the outside backs, with it currently looking like there will only be room for two of Starford To'a, Hymel Hunt and Enari Tuala.

The front row is also looking excellent with the Saifiti brothers and David Klemmer suiting up, while Kurt Mann or Phoenix Crossland have been touted to take Connor Watson's bench role.

The pressing issue though is replacing Mitchell Pearce. As much as the club would like to find rising star Simi Sasagi consistent game time, they will not want to go into the season with him as their first-choice option given his struggles with injury and lack of game time over the past two years.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 27: Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce of the Knights looks on during the round seven NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Newcastle Knights at QCB Stadium on June 27, 2020 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

A genuine number seven to replace Pearce will be critical, with the other options being Crossland and Adam Clune, neither of whom have first-choice half as their calling card for a team hoping to improve from a seventh-placed finish in 2021 to something in the top four this season.

There has been talk of shifting Jake Clifford into the seven and playing Kalyn Ponga at five-eighth, but that doesn't seem the best option either.

While a halfback seems to be the most pressing issue for the men from the Hunter, Aidan O'Brien's side have other problems to sort out.

One of them would appear to be at lock. While Connor Watson did a superb job, they desperately need a new ball-playing option, with Sausaso Sue currently the man looking as if he has been earmarked to take the 13 jersey when the new season comes around in March.

The Knights desperately struggled for points in 2022, and not having an extra creative option at lock will only put that further into the problem area.

A second-rower is also of the utmost importance to the club. While Mitchell Barnett has been solid, and Lachlan Fitzgibbon is also in the squad, neither of them scream star.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 23: Mitch Barnett of the Newcastle Knights sits on the bench during the round two NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Penrith Panthers at McDonald Jones Stadium on March 23, 2019 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Tyson Frizell has been strong in comparison and the second-rowers are such an important part of the game in both attack and defence that a whole team can at times hinge on a rock-solid option in those positions.

Candidates to steal

Option 1: Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)
If you're looking to replace a veteran halfback and go upwards, you go for the best. That is Nathan Cleary.

Cleary has barely lost a game in the last two seasons, whether that be for the Panthers or New South Wales. He is the best creative option in the game right now and would not just replace Pearce, but take the Knights to new undoubted heights.

The club struggled enormously for points in 2021, and while that can't be pinned on one player, and it must be noted injuries played their fair share in the role of the club's struggles, it's something Cleary would undoubtedly be able to take giant leaps towards fixing.

The Penrith half seems to see the game in slow motion, and it shows at the Panthers, with one of the best attacking records in the league.

He is also sound defensively, which will match up to the needs and standards at the Knights, who finished the season as one of the best defensive teams.

NATHAN CLEARY
Halfback
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
1
Try Assists
0.5
Tries
530.3
Kick Metres

Option 2: Cameron Murray (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
If you're looking for a ball-playing lock, Murray is it and a bit.

His ball-playing skills, to go with his footwork, are up there with any forward in the game, and he was outrageously unlucky not to win lock of the year, falling to Isaah Yeo in the race to be named to the Dally M team of the year.

On top of his ball-playing, Murray is something of a natural spark for any team's attack with his quick play the ball and ability to run the right lines.

If the Knights could go out and design a player with all the skills they need at lock, and all the talent they need to drag themselves further up the ladder, Murray would be the definition of that player.

CAMERON MURRAY
Lock
Rabbitohs
2021 SEASON AVG
1.1
Offloads
0.2
Tries
0
Try Assists

Option 3: Jason Taumalolo (North Queensland Cowboys)
Taumalolo has fallen away in the past 12 months under the coaching of Todd Payten and this almost works as well for him as it does for the Knights.

Formerly the best lock in the game, Taumalolo's numbers bordered on the ridiculous for so long, picking up around 200 metres per game (with plenty recorded north of that number) to go with enough tackle busts and line breaks to make an entire team look on with envy at times.

His ability to play big minutes and consistently get teams on the front foot seems to have been lost on Payten in Townsville, who has misused his star lock more than any coach with any other player in the competition.

But it's not as if that skill and work ethic dries up overnight for Taumalolo. He is a star in the very sense of the word, and while he would provide something very different to Murray, it's a talent the Knights could use to create time and space for Ponga, Clifford and whoever joins them in the key positions.

JASON TAUMALOLO
Second-row
Cowboys
2021 SEASON AVG
27.1
Tackles Made
0.1
Tries
2.1
Tackle Breaks

Option 4: Isaiah Papali'i (Parramatta Eels)
If you're looking for a second-rower, then there are none better than second-rower of the year Isaiah Papali'i.

It might have been a breakout season for the Parramatta now Wests Tigers' recruit, but he has the size, talent and skill to make it stick long-term.

What he should be valued at contract wise has been a big talking point of the off-season to date, and while some will suggest the Eels lowballed him, and the Tigers overpaid, a player's true value is whatever a club is willing to pay for him.

That said, it's no surprise the Tigers came in with a monster offer for the star, who seemed to do it all for Brad Artur. An attacking maestro on the edge, he could, like others on this list, be the answer to the Knights' attacking problems without giving up defensive standards.

Also holding an ability to play in the middle, he brings a versatility that any club would love to have.

ISAIAH PAPALI'I
Lock
Eels
2021 SEASON AVG
1.2
Offloads
0.3
Tries
0.1
Try Assists

The verdict

The verdict looks fairly clear here. As important as a lock forward is, the Knights have a strong enough middle third and may be able to develop Sue, Crossland or Mann into that player at a stretch.

It's mightily important they replace Pearce, and Cleary is the best halfback currently in the competition.

He has all the tools to turn the Knights from something looking like a top team into a team who could challenge for the competition, and his combination with both Ponga and Jayden Brailey would be something quite special to watch over the course of a season.

If the Knights could steal anyone in the competition, they would be bordering on mad to not take Cleary.

Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)

NRL Rd 23 - Panthers v Rabbitohs
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 20: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled by Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs during the round 23 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium, on August 20, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Next up in this series, we will be checking out the New Zealand Warriors.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. “Who would you steal?” is an intriguing idea, however the answer is nearly always Nathan Cleary, but Nathan is not available and won’t want to leave Penrith, anyway. So let’s be creative, shall we ?

    Newcastle desperately needs a new half back. Which other team has plenty of halves and could be persuaded to let one go?
    It’s the club with Nicho Hynes, Brayden Trindall, Matt Moyland, Luke Samuel, Lachlan Miller and Ryan Rivett.

    Matt Moyland is the best of those seven. When he is fit, on his day, he is one of the best going around. But he is injury prone. That is why the Sharks renewed him this year only on a $350K one year deal.

    Let’s be inventive. Offer Matt a two year deal at $150K per year, plus $15K per match. If he keeps his fitness and plays 20 matches this season, then Newcastle will pay him $150K + (20 * $15K) which is $450K. ie still less money than Mitchell Pearce was on. If Matt Moyland plays 20 games, then Newcastle will make the finals. If he breaks down and only plays a handful of games then Newcastle aren’t out of pocket.

    I reckon that Craig Fitzgibbon could be persuaded to let Matt go, and Matt would relish being the #1 choice at half rather than being in a seven-way fight for a halves berth.