Newcastle Knights 2019 season preview

The rebuild is officially over and the excuses are limited.

Newcastle are all systems go to make a charge towards their first finals appearance in six seasons.

After three years of heartache and a season of growth, the Hunter is anticipating success in 2019 and have every right to.

Their 11th placing in 2018 was a vast improvement on three straight wooden spoons and they've built a side on paper over that period that is capable to succeed.

A core of juniors who have come through the Knights system - Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Sione Mata'utia, Danny Levi and the Saifiti brothers - all complement the high profile recruits the club has purchased in the last two seasons.

But with the recruits comes a weight of expectation on their shoulders. Can the Knights live up to the hype?

The Outlook

What's New

Newcastle haven't looked this capable in the engine room for more than a decade.

A beefed up forward pack headlined by the arrival of David Klemmer, Tim Glasby and James Gavet boosts a side that has otherwise struggled to dominate the heavyweight packs in the game.

Knights newcomers Jesse Ramien (left) and Tim Glasby.
Knights newcomers Jesse Ramien (left) and Tim Glasby. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

Nathan Brown's patience in recruitment landed him a pot of gold with the addition of Australian international Klemmer in particular – an enforcer and metre-eater the Hunter has been crying out for.

The club has also added handy utilities Hymel Hunt and Kurt Mann to their squad who can cover most positions.

Another key change-up is in the Newcastle spine. Kalyn Ponga's move into the six jersey could dictate the year. If he fires alongside Mitchell Pearce, most sides will struggle to handle them.

The Draw

Four of the Knights opening five games are in the Hunter, giving expectant fans an up close look at whether the 2019 vintage is truly worth the hype.

The first month will be a genuine test of Newcastle's credentials too as they play host to heavyweights Cronulla, Penrith and St George Illawarra along with a trip to Canberra in round three.

The Knights fare reasonably well elsewhere in terms of facing last year's top eight – drawn to play the Storm, Broncos, Rabbitohs and Sharks just once, though their first clash with defending premiers the Roosters comes on a five-day turnaround after taking on the Dragons again.

The stat that gives you hope

Mitchell Pearce's long kicking game delivered significantly metres (295 per game) than any other player in the competition, with 18% of those that found space also ranking him in the top five.

Pearce is the key playmaker at the club and was a master at getting the Knights out of trouble with the boot last season. The elite additions in the forward pack should make it even easier on the former NSW halfback to craft his work on the back of dominant go-forward.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise

Kalyn Ponga ($784,000) was an elite Fantasy scorer in his first full season but his switch to the halves could restrict his scoring and help the prospects of new fullback Connor Watson ($601,000). Jesse Ramien ($568,000) is a potential gun in the centres while Sione Mata'utia ($446,000), Danny Levi ($467,000) and Kurt Mann ($379,000) all look great value if they can hold down a starting spot.

The Coach

He's been given enough time to form the squad he wants but Nathan Brown's time at Newcastle will come under the spotlight more than ever before in 2019. If the Knights struggle to perform early, Brown could be in the firing line.

The additions of several big names have brought a weight of expectation on Brown to now turn the team into a consistent winning one.

He signed a performance-based contract with the club last season, giving the Knights the option to sack him at any point should they wish to. The beauty of the deal is also a trusting one from Brown, who is realistic about the job at hand.

Knights coach Nathan Brown.
Knights coach Nathan Brown. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

He's not the safest coach in terms of job security but deserves some respect and time given the journey he's taken the side on since taking over in 2016.

Contract Matters

A huge 2018 turnover and long term deals for big names Klemmer (signed until 2023), Pearce and Ponga (both 2021) should keep the Knights relatively stable this year. Jamie Buhrer is in talks for a new contract while Shaun Kenny-Dowall remains in Newcastle's plans beyond 2019, with the club knocking back a proposed player swap involving SKD and former Dragon Kurt Mann.

The Burning Question

Will Kalyn Ponga's move into the halves work?

It could prosper early or become a failed experiment. Either way, the Knights will get a good grasp as to where they're at with Kalyn Ponga's move to five-eighth by about round eight.

There's no questioning Ponga's ability in open space, but opinions are mixed on whether it's the right time to move the Queensland representative into the front line.

Ponga produced hot and cold performances in the trials, as to be expected, and has to adjust to work on the edges.

The beauty of the move is the Knights have plenty of depth to shift players around should Ponga need to switch back into the No.1 jersey by season's end.

Knights five-eighth Kalyn Ponga.
Knights five-eighth Kalyn Ponga. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Representative bolter

Jesse Ramien. NSW are blessed with plenty of options out wide at present but the Coonamble product turned plenty of heads in 2018 with his performances for Cronulla, earning a call-up to Brad Fittler's 23-man Emerging Blues squad in November. Ramien remains down the Origin pecking order but arrives in Newcastle with big expectations after a sterling rookie season.

The player you should follow on social media

Mitchell Pearce described him as "too cool" in the pre-season and his Instagram profile supports that statement – Kalyn Ponga is one player all rugby league fans should follow.

Ponga has a keen interest in professional photography, often sharing his best snaps at the beach or with his mates. He's one of the most followed players in the game at just 20 years of age with over 150k followers.

 
 
 
 
 
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Steady doing double clicks

A post shared by KALYN PONGA (@kalyn__ponga) on

The quote

"Expectations are higher, and from year one to two to three we went better … and now we need to make that improvement again. With good players comes expectation and with expectation there’s obviously added pressure, but I’d much rather sign David Klemmer and be under more pressure than not have him. That expectation is a good thing, but I think the expectation from within ourselves is probably higher than from people outside but that’s what professional sport is all about." - Nathan Brown

Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.