From the outside, the Newcastle Knights' training session on Monday looked like any other held over the last few weeks, but according to coach Rick Stone, there’s been a major shift.
The atmosphere around the squad has intensified as the team channels its focus to preparation for Round 1 against the New Zealand Warriors on Saturday afternoon.
"The boys finally know it’s on, that’s for sure,” Stone told the media after Monday’s training session at Wests Mayfield.
“They are all a bit excited about the weekend coming up, which is great.”
As players’ anticipation increases for the long awaited season opener, Stone believes it’s important to manage the build up and maintain attention on the task at hand.
“Footy starts on Thursday and you can get a bit mentally drained getting caught up in the hype, so we are all about timing our run to peak on Saturday,” he said.
“We are going to stick to a tried and true routine and make sure we are at our peak, physically and mentally.”
Touted as one of the most defensively challenging side’s in the league, the Warriors will be a challenge for the Knights in the opening round.
But Stone assures it’s nothing they won’t be prepared for with the team closely studying the Warriors’ signature game play.
“I think all first games are really important and think the discipline, mistake rate and penalties are a massive contributor to the result, and this will be no different,” he said.
“It will be about being tidy and defensively strong, that’s one thing you have to be against the Warriors.
"They have such array of talent and are such a powerful footy team.
“They have weapons all over the park and are a really dangerous attacking team."
Stone also acknowledges the boost Shaun Johnson, one of the Warriors’ most dynamic playmakers, gives to the already solid line-up.
“We’d be mad not to think that he’s not a really important cog to their wheel,” he added.
“It’s really a bit about minimising his affect rather than shutting him down all together.
“Their pack is always big, mobile and aggressive, any pack of forwards have to be in their game if they are to hold their own at least in the ruck.
“This game matching it up with the big Warriors forwards is going to be a tough assignment for these boys, but I know they are up for it and ready for a crack and ready to prove themselves against some of the knockers supposedly they’ve had.”
Question marks still hang over a number of starting positions that Stone indicates he’s in no hurry to confirm.
“There’s a couple of key positions to sort out and we might keep that until game day, he said.
"It’ll be up to us to decide what we think is going to be the best balance for the team on the day.
“The first selection is usually the hardest because when you’re thinking about your depth and your quality that you really need to have in your team to be competitive at this level, you’ll have blokes that are going to be disappointed when they miss out.”
Stone admits a major decision presents itself in the centres, with Dane Gagai, Sione Mata’utia and Joey Leilua all pushing for starting honours in Saturday’s game.
While Leilua joined the squad late after a break following his Samoan Four Nations Campaign, he’s made recent progress to ensure he’s in contention for Round 1.
“He’s one of our more dynamic ball runners that can match it with the Warriors in size and pace and can break the line and break tackles,” Stone said said.
“He’s an important member of our team and particularly in the last month he’s seen the finish line as far as the first game’s concerned.
“He’s working to get himself in pretty tidy nick for the first game.”
Support the Knights at Hunter Stadium on Saturday when they take on the New Zealand Warriors! Buy your game ticket here.