Newcastle Knights – 2014 NRL Preview

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On the back of a scandal filled off-season, the Knights will be looking to build off their run in last season’s finals. Do they have what it takes to do it? Read part 9 of the 16-part preview of the NRL season to find out.

Author’s note: This article was compiled prior to the incidents involving Knights players Willie Mason and Dane Gagai. While the impact on Mason should be little if at all, any reference to Gagai earning a spot in the Queensland origin team should now be considered irrelevant.

2013 review

The 2013 NRL season was the most successful for the Knights since their last premiership in 2001, as they made the preliminary final. Unfortunately, they were outgunned by the Roosters but showed plenty of grit and fight in their two wins in the finals, which were away from home, when they eliminated both 2012 grand finalists in consecutive weeks. The Knights definitely have the experience to go one or two better in 2014 but will being a year or two older actually be a hindrance to Newcastle’s chances in 2014? We will find out the answer to this question in 9 months.

Newcastle’s defence was one of the best in the NRL in 2013, as they conceded almost 3 points per game less than the season average, which was also almost 3 points per game less than the amount of points that they conceded in 2012. It is the calling card of any team coached by Wayne Bennett and they will again look to their defence to be the backbone of their success. The Knights’ attack also clicked into gear in 2013, as they scored just less than 3.5 points per game more than they did in 2012. This result was also about 1.5 points more per game than the 2013 NRL season average. As the squad did not have a great amount of turnover (aside from the loss of Danny Buderus), the Knights will be hoping that the combinations that developed in 2013 will be further strengthened over the off-season, which they hope will lead to an even better attack.

Outside backs

The starting fullback, wings and centres for the Knights are all well established and there will be very little competition for these positions this season, barring injury. This is because it is one of the best backlines in the NRL. They possess an all-representative back three in Darius Boyd, James McManus and Akuila Uate. I can’t think of any better back three in the league. Boyd is ever cool, McManus is solid as a rock and great under the high ball, while Uate is a destructive ball runner. The centres, Dane Gagai and Joseph Leilua, are young and have gotten their act together under the coaching of Bennett. Both stepped up during the last year’s finals series and I have Gagai as the early favourite to replace the injured Justin Hodges in the centres for Queensland for this year’s Origin series. The Knights still have depth in the outside backs, despite losing Kevin Naiqama. When some of the starting outside backs are unavailable (Origin will no doubt force a few of these), the Knights have experienced replacements in Timana Tahu and Anthony Quinn, as well as youngster Josh Mantellato, who impressed in his one game last season.

Halves

The Knights also have an established pair in the halves, with five eight Jarrod Mullen and halfback Tyrone Roberts directing the team around. Unlike most sides, the five eight is the dominant playmaker, as Mullen is the more senior and possesses a stronger kicking game of the two. Roberts complements him perfectly, as his main strength is his running game which provides a point of difference in attack. In terms of depth in the halves, Newcastle has Kurt Gidley who is more than capable, even though he will be mostly used at hooker this season. They have also bought Michael Dobson, who does have NRL first grade experience in the halves. He is more than capable of filling in if required.

Front row

This is the biggest weakness of the whole side. While their starting front row is quite good, the front row depth is not great and their starting hooker, Kurt Gidley, has not played a lot of games over the past two seasons due to injury. If Gidley goes down again this season, then the Knights can no longer call on Danny Buderus or Craig Gower. The alternates are Matt Hilder, who is solid at best, Travis Waddell, who didn’t show a lot last season, and the inexperienced Adam Clydesdale. Clydesdale should be the future hooker for Newcastle but he may not be ready for the top grade at the moment. In the props, starters Kade Snowden and Willie Mason provided a great platform and leadership for the rest of the side to follow. However, they cannot play the entire game and the side lost a lot of go forward when they were both on the sideline. The organisation was aware of this, which is the reason why they acquired Russell Packer but this fell through following his conviction. If the Knights are to match last year’s effort, they need David Fa’alogo, Zane Tetevano or Korbin Sims to step up and provide some impact off the bench. Neville Costigan is no longer an option on the bench, following his move to the Super League.

Back row

The Knights starting back row is a mix of youth and experience. The experienced hard heads Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott are joined by the young Robbie Rochow. Smith and Scott provide stability and a level of toughness to the side through their strong defence and work rates. On the other hand, Rochow provides more impact, as he is a stronger ball runner. For depth, the Knights have the experienced Chris Houston and young star Alex McKinnon who should feature on their bench in 2014. Newcastle has also brought back Clint Newton to provide even more experience to the team. They are hoping that he can have a similar impact that Willie Mason did, in terms of building team morale. I wouldn’t expect him to play a lot of first grade, unless there are a lot of injuries.

Bench

Last season, the Knights had one hooker and three forwards on the bench. With the utility of Kurt Gidley and with Alex McKinnon able to cover in the backline if required, the Knights have no need to play a back on the bench. I do think that they will have 2 back rowers on the bench, when at full strength, as I can’t see them leaving Houston or McKinnon out of the squad. This does leave the Knights a little small in the front row.

Coach

Wayne Bennett is the most decorated coach in rugby league history. He has coached 7 teams to premierships and I can’t see him leaving Newcastle until he brings them their first premiership since 2001. In his time at the Dragons and the Knights, his teams have played quite conservatively. However, the Knights did start playing with a little more flare. With the backline that this side has, I can’t see why this won’t continue in 2014.

Best squad

  1. Darius Boyd
  2. James McManus
  3. Dane Gagai
  4. Joseph Leilua
  5. Akuila Uate
  6. Jarrod Mullen
  7. Tyrone Roberts
  8. Kade Snowden
  9. Kurt Gidley
  10. Willie Mason
  11. Robbie Rochow
  12. Beau Scott
  13. Jeremy Smith
  14. Matt Hilder
  15. Chris Houston
  16. David Fa’alogo
  17. Alex McKinnon

Prediction

7th. I can see the Knights 2014 replicating their 2013 effort. As this side is the most experienced and oldest in the NRL, they won’t be able to go at full pace for all of the season. If this side gets into a position high enough on the ladder, then they can go for a run in the finals as they did last season. If their young props can provide go forward when Snowden and Mason are off the field, then they will win most of their games as their good backline can outscore most opposition’s backs. I’m a little sceptical on whether this can occur, which is why I’ve got them coming 7th.

2014 Ladder Prediction

  1. Penrith Panthers
  2. Newcastle Knights
  3. Gold Coast Titans
  4. St George Illawarra Dragons
  5. Brisbane Broncos
  6. New Zealand Warriors
  7. Wests Tigers
  8. Parramatta Eels
  9. Canberra Raiders
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