PAIR OF ACES: Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga talk tactics at training. They shape as a dynamic duo for Newcastle once they have established a combination. Picture: Jonathan CarrollNEWCASTLE are poised to field more new faces in the season-opener against Manly than in any game since the club’s inaugural outing, against Parramatta in round one, 1988.
In an indication of the wholesale turnover of players during the past 12 months, Knights coach Nathan Brown is expected to choose his nine mainoff-season recruits fortheclash with the Sea Eagles at McDonald Jones Stadium on March 9.
GAME-BREAKER: Connor Watson hopes to establish himself at five-eighth.
Barring any injuries in Saturday’s trial against Parramatta at Maitland, Newcastle’s first-round squad is likely to include Kalyn Ponga, Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra, Jacob Lillyman, Slade Griffin, Herman Ese’eseand Chris Heighington.
It shapes asthe largest contingent of club debutants since Newcastle’s 1988 premiere performance against the Eels, when 16 players wore the red-and-blue jersey for the first time in the NSW Rugby League premiership.
PRIME MOVER: Herman Ese’ese was a key signing from Brisbane.
Brown is no stranger to unveiling revamped teams.
Two years ago, in hisfirst game at Newcastle’s helm, seven players – David Bhana, Jaelen Feeney, Trent Hodkinson, Pat Mata’utia, Pauli Pauli and the Saifiti twins, Jacob and Daniel –debuted against the Gold Coast.
In round one, 1989, six debutants– Michael Hagan, Peter Johnston, Mark Sargent, Gary Wurth, John Allanson and Arnold Krewanty – helped the Knights to a season-opening win against Wests Magpies.
In 2008, Brian Smith’s second season as Knights coach, he ushered in five new signings: Richie Fa’aoso, Matt Hilder, Chris Houston, Wes Naiqama and Danny Wicks.
Brown’s full-time squad this yearfeatures 22 changes sincethe corresponding point of last season.
Brown is set to name his line-up on Tuesday for Saturday’s hit-outwith the Eels, which is expected to include Moga, Daniel Saifiti and Mitch Barnett, all of whom had off-season shoulder reconstructions.
The trial, which has attracted a sell-out crowd of 6500, shapes as the last chance forplayers to state a case for round-one selection.
The backline appears settled but there will be fierce competition for spots in the pack, where Josh King, the Saifitis and Lachlan Fitzgibbon are competing for selection with the host of new recruits.
Parramatta are likely to bring their strongest squad to Maitland, including superstar Jarryd Hayne, who has returned after stints in the NFL and with Gold Coast Titans.