Ex-Roosters teammates Aiden Guerra and Mitchell Pearce are among the Knight’s NRL recruits.Newcastle Knights fans have a spring in their step and, despite admitting he’s not sure how his new-look NRL team will go, coach Nathan Brown isn’t about to burst their bubble.
After three successive wooden spoons, the Knights have undergone enormous change in the past 12 months.
Heading the arrivals list is halfback Mitchell Pearce, while young Sydney Roosters five-eighth Connor Watson, North Queensland fullback Kalyn Ponga and Melbourne hooker Slade Griffin have also headed to the Hunter to potentially form a completely-restructured spine.
Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese arrive from the Brisbane Broncos with their best football in front of them while Aidan Guerra, Jacob Lillyman and Chris Heighington bring size and experience.
“You can be excited by a lot of players we’ve added, but Pearce, at 28, his next three years should be his best three,” Brown told AAP.
“I’m confident that Kalyn has a good future here and along with Connor he’s in a key position for us.
“Add Slade, who’ll fight with Danny (Levi) for the hooking spot, and we have plenty of running threats and pace in those key positions and guys joining us from good, top-four organisations.”
The future of young half Brock Lamb has come into question with the arrivals of Pearce and Watson, with Brown admitting the sheer volume of moving pieces will be difficult to juggle.
“It’s a unique situation to have such a big changeover – I think 22 gone since this time last year – but we can all grow together now,” he said.
“We were a bad team two years ago; last year won half a dozen games and were in positions to win a few more and I expect our opposition to say we’re a fair bit better again this year.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the town; we’re all excited and have bigger expectations this year but we’re developing, so you can’t sit there and say for sure where we’ll be.
“You want people to be excited though; they deserve to be after going through three spoons.”
The influx will test Brown’s man-management skills and increase the stakes after two seasons of limited expectation.
In response Brown is putting it on the club’s developing players, not the incoming stars, to trigger the change.
“We really need the younger players with two seasons under their belts to step up,” Brown said.
“It won’t be a cakewalk for them anymore to get a game; they will have to play well to be picked and that will be important for us to be successful.”
He said improvement won’t come automatically, particularly with the savvy recruitment of other clubs outside last season’s top eight.
“Look at the Dragons, the Warriors; they’ve all strengthened their squads since a lot of good players went off contract last season and were smart enough to get their piece of the pie in the new pay agreement,” he said.
“It’s going to be a lot harder and we’ll be the underdogs until we play well enough to change opinions.
“But the reality is that whatever we do this year, we’ll do better in the next.”
Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 – 16th, 2016 – 16th, 2015 – 16th
Coach: Nathan Brown
Captain: Jamie Buhrer (TBC)
Gains: Kalyn Ponga (Cowboys), Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Mitchell Pearce (Roosters), Tautau Moga, Herman Ese’ese (Broncos), Slade Griffin (Storm), Jacob Lillyman (Warriors), Chris Heighington (Sharks), Christian Hazard (Redcliffe), Brent Naden (Raiders)
Losses: Jarrod Mullen (released), Brendan Elliot, Jack Stockwell (Titans), Dane Gagai (Rabbitohs), Rory Kostjasyn (retired), Peter Mata’utia (Leigh), Sam Mataora (retired), Mickey Paea (Hull FC), Josh Starling (Oberon), Anthony Tupou (retired), Jo Wardle (Castleford), Jacob Gagan (Rabbitohs), Jaelen Feeney (Townsville), Chanel Mata’utia (released), Pauli Pauli (Wakefield), David Bhana (not re-signed), Bryce Donovan (Redcliffe), Will Pearsall (not re-signed)
Best team: 1. Kalyn Ponga, 2. Nathan Ross, 3. Sione Mata’utai, 4. Tautau Moga, 5. Shaun Kenny-Dowall, 6. Connor Watson, 7. Mitchell Pearce, 8. Daniel Saifiti, 9. Slade Griffin, 10. Jacob Lillyman, 11. Aidan Guerra, 12. Jamie Buhrer, 13. Mitchell Barnett. Bench: 14. Danny Levi, 15. Jacob Saifiti, 16. Chris Heighington, 17. Herman Ese’ese.
Predicted finish: 9th