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Watson facing challengers for Knights No.9 jersey

Connor Watson may not have secured the No.9 jersey just yet as the replacement for injured Knights hooker Jayden Brailey.

Coach Adam O'Brien is weighing up who to start on May 31 against the Panthers after Brailey's season was cut short with an ACL tear.

It's emerged that Chris Randall has put his hand up, with the 24-year-old knocking on the door to make his NRL debut.

Teammate Kurt Mann nominated him as a worthy replacement, alongside former Australian Schoolboy rep Luke Huth.

"We've got Connor there. He played a lot of that role last year and done really well. We've got a couple of young blokes there as well in Chris Randall and Luke Huth as well," Mann said.

Settled Mann happy in the halves

Newcastle have big raps on 20-year-old Huth but Randall is also firming as a hooker of NRL standard.

The demands on hookers will be high with the new "six-again" rule allowing for quick decisions in the ruck in attack, or quick thinking in defence. That's on top of the usual tackling requirements of a No.9 after the game has been in recess for eight weeks.

One thing is certain - Mann is settled in the five-eighth role despite the long break from working with Mitchell Pearce.

We've got a couple of young blokes in Chris Randall and Luke Huth as well

Kurt Mann on Newcastle's depth at hooker

"Our combination is working pretty well. I spent a lot of time with Pearcey in the halves the year before so I've got to know him and his game pretty well,"' Mann said.

"I don't think we've really lost much. I tried to keep in touch with him as much as I could over that break period. We've hit the ground running since we got back."

Although Mann has played fullback for the Knights – as well as hooker and in the halves – in his 21 games for the Knights since moving from the Dragons, he's not filling in for Kalyn Ponga either.

O'Brien has stated previously that Tex Hoy was the likely replacement for the suspended Ponga.

"Texie has pretty much got that wrapped up. He's an exciting young kid and plays a pretty similar game to KP," Mann said. 

But Mann might have to take on the other Ponga role of goalkicking – for one game at least.

"I've been practising a little bit. I haven't been goal kicking since under-20s so it's taken me a while to get going. But I'm improving.

Sydney home games no problem for Knights

"Tex is a fairly established goal kicker so I guess we'll find out closer to next week, who's going to be kicking."

The loss of Ponga from the Knights side will be somewhat offset by the fact the Panthers will be without star halfback Nathan Cleary. 

Cleary is facing a two-match ban for breaking pandemic isolation rules and being untruthful with the NRL Integrity Unit.

"Cleary is a big part of what they do. He's their playmaker and one of their leaders in the team, so that will be a massive loss for them," Mann said.

Both the Panthers and Knights are undefeated from the two rounds played before the COVID-19 shutdown.