Newcastle enters the 2019 season with their best opportunity to return to finals footy in recent memory.
Not since 2013 have Knights fans enjoyed the excitement of finals competition but if my prediction proves to be correct, 2019 will end their finals drought.
Unfortunately, the past few seasons have been nothing short/more than terrible, with three straight wooden spoons sandwiched between 12th and 11th placed finishes.
That changes in 2019.
This is the best well rounded and quality filled Knights squad I’ve seen since the Buderus days. Despite their 4th placed finish in 2013, I think this current squad laps that side in terms of talent.
2018 was all about the rise of the game’s next true megastar, 20-year-old Kalyn Ponga.
That’s not to say the squad lacked talent elsewhere with Premiership winner Mitchel Pearce, fellow former Roosters SKD and Aidan Guerra and former Kangaroo international Sione Mata’utia.
That said, this 2019 squad has the 2018 squad in every department; talent, depth and overall quality.
Obviously, the star of the show is still Ponga. The success of his move into the halves will play a huge role in deciding whether or not the Knights are comfortable finals contenders or simply there to make up the numbers.
His halves partner Mitchell Pearce had a wonderful 2018 for his new club after a horror off-season.
It mustn’t have been easy for the Premiership winner and multiple time Origin representative to cop being walked out of his club after being told he couldn’t deliver another title.
Ultimately the Roosters would be proven correct in their backing of Cooper Cronk but Pearce himself hardly let himself down.
Conor Watson looked far more at home during his time at fullback than he did in the halves. That’s nothing against his playmaking skills but a natural runner and quick off the mark, I forecast the move back into the custodian role to be a success.
The Knights have also recruited extremely well and it is those ins who I believe will ice their finals qualification.
David Klemmer is the big name and brings with him size, aggression, and rep level experience.
He is the new pack leader and will become a megastar in the Hunter. The extra responsibility will propel him into the next level.
Klemmer mentioned upon leaving the Dogs that he wanted to escape the distractions and scrutiny of the Sydney fishbowl. Newcastle should provide an amazing opportunity to achieve that.
For mine though, it is another recruit who will be looked upon as perhaps the best signing of the season in Jesse Ramien.
As a Sharks fan, I am a big supporter of the tackle-breaking centre. Although I was really unhappy to see him leave the club I was really happy to hear the reasoning.
Ramien is now closer to his young daughter and combined with another full pre-season under his belt, Ramien will be in the talk when it comes to New South Wales selection.
Although I can’t see the Blues displacing their successful centre pairing of Roberts and Mitchell, Ramien will push them both all the way if he continues to develop at the same rate.
Outside him will be former Sharks partner Edrick Lee. Lee had a career resurgent year in 2018 in the black white and blue and should score plenty of tries for his new club.
Throw in Origin representative Tim Glasby and utility Kurt Mann and, as I’ve said before, few if any have recruited as well as the Knights.
Another player I expect to push for Origin selection comes in the form of Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
Arguably my favourite non-Shark, Fitzgibbon looks set for a monster season. My early prediction is he will finish the season as the top try-scoring second rower.
The fact that players like Ese’ese, Saifiti, Barnett and Buhrer will either play from the bench or in NSW cup really illustrates the quality within this squad.
Last year the Knights pack was strong in terms of run on but really lacked the depth to push the more superior sides.
A fair few clubs would now be very jealous of the Knights forwards.
It looks as though they’ll share the role in the early rounds but with Slade Griffin due to return mid-season, there have been a fair few instances of links away from the club for the former Kiwi number nine.
Across the board, this Knights squad is packed full of quality players. There are a sprinkling of game-breakers, some monsters up front and try-scoring potential out wide.
Whether or not they can produce the consistency to push for a top four birth remains to be seen but I’ll be very, very surprised if this side doesn’t play finals.
No matter what their results and finish though, this side is no longer a one-man setup.
Ponga is now the star but no longer the be all and end all.
Someone late last year jokingly penned the term ‘Ponga and Friends’, that no longer applies.