As the Newcastle Knights prepare for the opening round of the 2014 season this Saturday, Knights TV sat down with assistant coach Rick Stone to discuss the selections.
With all three grades naming strong sides for clashes against the Penrith Panthers at Sportingbet Stadium, Stone runs his eye over the players to watch out for and who has impressed this pre-season.
Newcastle take on a new-look Panthers outfit boosted by a number of big-name recruits in Peter Wallace, Jamie Soward, Brent Kite and Jamal Idris.
Stone believes the Knights have prepared well this summer for the opening round and are ready to fire in the absence of five-eighth Jarrod Mullen due to a hamstring injury.
“Our team has got a bit of familiarity around it, which is good," Stone says.
“Obviously missing Mullo is a blow, but we feel like we’ve got a really adequate replacement in Michael Dobson.
“We’ve also got some great depth on the bench with a number of players who are versatile."
Stone has no doubts Dobson will handle his return to the NRL after six years in the English Super League with Hull KR, Wigan and Catalans.
"Dobbo has been great," he enthuses.
"Obviously he has come as a bit of a backup originally to Tyrone and Mullen.
"Having Mullo out is a big blow that’s for sure, but in Michael we’ve got a really experienced campaigner.
"He has a good left-foot kick, he controls the team really well and defensively I think he has really matured in that role from what I’ve seen in the pre-season and trials."
Another player to watch out for is Dane Gagai.
Stone says the Mackay-born flyer has stood out big time this pre-season and expect him to find plenty of open space.
"Dane has really matured this pre-season," he says.
"And thinking of going over to the USA to the Michael Johnston Training Center on his own bat is a really impressive thing.
"He has come back fitter and stronger and probably a little bit more reliable in what he is doing and more consistent in his plays.
"He is set for a big year that’s for sure."
Perhaps the icing on the cake for the Knights is the return of skipper Kurt Gidley after two years of injury setbacks.
Stone insists Newcastle are a significantly better team with Gidley in the line-up.
"It’s a tremendous boost to have Kurt back," he says.
"We are a better team when he plays. We are more competitive and probably more dangerous.
"Kurt moving to hooker probably adds another string to your bow."
Newcastle's NYC team hasn't qualified for the finals in two seasons, but Stone says familiar faces and new recruits will ensure the Club perform well in the under 20s ranks in 2014.
A couple of new buys to look out for are Tuiala Togiatasi, a prop from the Roosters and halfback Jaelen Feeney, who starred for the Bulldogs last season.
"The NYC program is about building potential first graders and we've had few of these boys in the system for a while now, which is important," he says.
"We've also got a few new players and I'll be interested to see how they go this weekend.
"I think Tuiala is going to add a little bit of leg speed and force.
"Jaelen has come with a pretty impressive reputation as a running halfback and one who takes the line on.
"He has defintely done that in the trials.
"I think both those guys will add plenty to our team."
The NYC side also welcomes back Jake Mamo, Sione Mata'utia and Joseph Tapine to the team after the trio stepped up and trained with the NRL squad over the summer.
Stone says all three players will add plenty to the under 20s team on the back of their maiden pre-season with the NRL squad.
"They are all terrific kids," he enthuses.
"Obviously with Joe Tapine who is still injured (hernia), those three are all potential first graders.
"They've had some time in the first grade squad and Jake was impressive in the Auckland Nines with his speed and competitiveness and will to win.
"They'll be in a position where they will get a chance to play in the NRL at some stage, but in the meantime they'll definitely add some strike to the NYC team."
On the back of consecutive visits to the Preliminary Final in 2012 and 2013, Stone says the Club's NSW Cup side are ready to go one step further in 2014 and qualify for a grand final.
The team has plenty of experience with the likes of Josh Mantellato and Matt Hilder, but also some fresh faces to look out for.
Stone nominates centre Brayden Wiliame as one player set to perform well.
"Brayden is from the Central Coast originally," he explains.
"He has done some time at the Melbourne Storm and Parramatta Eels previously and was looking for a club and we were looking for a little bit of depth."
Stone says Matt Minto is also a player to watch closely.
"Matt is comes to us from the Mackay Cutters where he led them to a premiership last season from halfback," he says.
"He has got a fair reputation and I think Matty trained terrifically in the off-season and hopefully we can give him some guidance to cement an NRL spot down the track."
The NSW Cup side will head into Saturday's season-opener, a side which knocked them out of last year's finals race, minus veterans Timana Tahu (ACL) and Clint Newton (bicep).
This aside, Stone remains confident the likes of skipper Hilder will raise the bar with Tahu and Newton on the sidelines.
"It's Club policy to have some of our senior players mixing with the younger players and i think it works really well," he says.
"Matty Hilder who is going to be our captain is a perfect example.
"He has a great work ethic and the way he prepares for games is a great example for our young players."