O’Brien rolls dice with pivotal Ponga switch but finals return unlikely for Newcastle

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It’s now 22 long years and counting since Newcastle last held up the premiership trophy and after missing the top eight last season, coach Adam O’Brien is banking on a major change to bring a dramatic change in fortunes.

They have a decent amount of talent on the team sheet but they only managed six wins last season to finish a dismal 14th on the ladder as injuries took their toll.

Continuity in positions was an issue – not just because of injury but also due to struggling to find the right people for the job. There were also a lot of distractions off the field including the well-publicised saga around Kalyn Ponga’s re-signing as well as the speculation over whether O’Brien would get sacked.

Newcastle have one of the most dedicated fan bases in the competition, but even they have had enough of terrible results and an apparent lack of heart from their team. They are sick of the club living in the shadow of the glory days and will be looking for a lot more effort from the squad.

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O’Brien has decided the best path forward is switching Ponga to five-eighth. It didn’t work a few seasons ago but he’s rolling the dice in 2023 in a bid to put some steel back into the Knights.

The path to the trophy

Health, luck, heart, and some attitude adjustments will go a long way to adding to the Knights success.

There is no doubt the team lifts with Ponga on the field, but they relied on him too often to create the spark from fullback.

There has been a lot of talk questioning his move to the halves, which may be wide of the mark seeing how electric he can be from out the back. But there are more opportunities for Newcastle when he gets his hands on the ball, and that will happen even more when he’s based in the middle as one of the two main playmakers.

He will partner with one of their off-season buys in Jackson Hastings. These two have the potential to become a smart and exciting halves combination that sticks – something the club has been lacking. Ponga will be wanting to prove he is worth the huge price tag, while Hastings will be out to show the Tigers they let the wrong half go.

Co-cptain Jayden Brailey possesses a very smart football brain and can read the game well from hooker. His Achilles injury saw the Knights lack a lot of chances out of dummy half, making only 154 dummy half runs compared to 292 for the top-ranked Cowboys.

A player like Brailey will get that movement happening and help create more opportunities to attack.

Dominic Young was one of the only shining lights for the club last season, and off the back of a personally successful Worlds Cup campaign, has the potential to lift another gear and get some more four-pointers on the board.

After offloading David Klemmer, Mitch Barnett and Sauaso Sue, the Knights will be led by the Saifiti brothers, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Tyson Frizell and recruits Adam Elliott and Jack Hetherington, who can all cause a lot of damage upfront. Constant go-forward along with effective defence is a must.

A healthy, cohesive, pride-filled Knights team can cause a few upsets and get a nice roll on for 2023.

The danger signs ahead

The Knights were poor right across the park last season, coming equal third last for tries scored with just 70, and third overall for most missed tackles with 806. They were also very low for line breaks and tackle breaks, meaning second-phase opportunities were scarce. Attack was non-existent, defence paper thin – it was a shambles.

Besides the Ponga experiment failing, the pressure on the new-look spine is a real concern. Ponga, Hastings, Brailey and new fullback Lachlan Miller may have the talent as individuals, but it all has to work well and fast.

There are other factors that could cause the Knights to have yet another woeful year.  The first is a lack of consistency. As they usually do, they started the season off strong. A 20-6 win over the Roosters was followed up by an impressive 26-4 win over the Tigers. Then, it all fell apart.

Last season started with high hopes of the start of a young and fresh halves pairing in Jake Clifford and Adam Clune. It ended with another six failed attempts after that at getting a five-eighth and halfback to gel. Ponga and Hastings should fix that, but again a lot of hope rests in the new combo clicking quickly. There is no doubt that injury played a huge part in the downfall of consistency – Brailey missed most of the season and then key players like Ponga, Fitzgibbon, Bradman Best and Dane Gagai also spent time on the sideline.

Bradman Best of the Knights

Bradman Best (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

This exposed another area of concern – depth. A few big names ruled out almost caused Newcastle to implode, and while the club have recruited well, there is a big possibility of the same issue happening again. Teams like the Panthers and Storm showed how important depth is to a pack, with their ability to fill the ‘next man up’ requirement whenever anyone was out of action.

Then we have O’Brien. Whether it is a lack of respect, knowledge, confidence, or being too busy wondering if ‘people know who he is’, his fit has never felt right at the Knights. Apparently, the team train well, and while he can’t get out there and play for the boys, there just doesn’t seem to be the right game plans or direction in place to begin with.

If one or all become big issues once again, the season could spiral out of control for Newcastle.

The draw

The Knights have the potential to get off to another flyer, with their first three matches against the Warriors, Tigers Dolphins. If they don’t get a roll on early in the season, they may fall off a cliff by a quarter of the way in when they face the Panthers, Cowboys and Eels in rounds 7, 8 and 9.

They face the premiers twice, but the Cowboys, Eels and Rabbitohs just once.

There are no other real areas of ease or pain throughout the year and have a huge 17 games with a seven-day or more turnaround. If the Knights can get out of their own way they should be ok.

The key trio: Ponga, Brailey and the Saifitis

The club’s highest-profiled player has to be at his best, he has to be healthy, and he has to guide the troops around. While the Knights looked to him to fix everything last year, having him in the halves will enable Ponga to do so much more. But for goodness sake can someone please get him his 2022 Origin 3 jersey to play in? And maybe some bubble wrap as well?

Just like Ponga, Brailey’s presence on the field is a necessity for Newcastle to have any chance at succeeding. He showed us in 2021 just how important his defence is, making the most tackles in the entire competition. His speed and smarts out of dummy half will also prove invaluable this season.

Jayden Brailey of the Knights passes the ball

Jayden Brailey (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

I’m cheating and grouping these two together, but united is how they must be in order to lead the forward pack. As two of the most senior players up front, they need to show the rest of the big guys the way.

Player under pressure: Lachlan Fitzgibbon

While Ponga is an obvious choice, his constant headlines are detracting from a few other players just coasting through on their names and lack of replacements, including Fitzgibbon. You can’t rest on the fact your dad is the CEO of the team’s major sponsor forever.

The hidden gem: Brodie Jones

Busts his gut every time he laces up his boots and will give his all no matter what position on the field he is asked to play. A local junior who took out the club’s 2021 Rookie of the Year award, the versatile second-rower could be a big reason for the Knights success this year.

Coach’s safety rating

O’Brien is in real trouble. He could easily be one of the first coaches to get the chop in season 2023 if the Knights don’t have early and consistent success.

Adam O’Brien of the Knights during a press conference

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Premiership odds

They are rank outsiders at $51 at PlayUp, which is 15th overall.

Predicted finish

The Knights will improve but just miss out on the finals, finishing 9th or 10th.

Adam Elliott 2023 2024 2025    
Adam Clune 2023        
Bailey Hodgson 2023        
Bradman Best 2023 2024      
Brodie Jones 2023        
Greg Marzhew 2023        
Dane Gagai 2023 2024      
Daniel Saifiti 2023 2024 2025 2026  
Dominic Young 2023        
Dylan Lucas 2023 PO      
Enari Tuala 2023        
Hymel Hunt 2023        
Jack Johns 2023        
Jack Hetherington 2023 2024 2025    
Jacob Saifiti 2023 2024      
Jackson Hastings 2023 2024 2025    
Jayden Brailey 2023 2024 2025    
Kalyn Ponga 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027
Krystian Mapapalangi 2023 2024      
Kurt Mann 2023        
Lachlan Fitzgibbon 2023        
Leo Thompson 2023 2024 2025    
Mathew Croker 2023 2024      
Phoenix Crossland 2023 2024      
Simi Sasagi 2023 2024      
Tyson Gamble 2023 2024      
Tyson Frizell

Lachlan Miller





Season draw

Round Fixture Date Time Venue
1 Knights v Warriors Friday, March 3 6:00pm (AEDT) Sky Stadium, Wellington
2 Knights vTigers Sunday, March 12 4:05pm Leichhardt Oval, Sydney
3 Knights v Dolphins Friday, March 17 6:00pm McDonald Jones Stadium 
4 Knights v Raiders Sunday, March 26 4:05pm McDonald Jones Stadium
5 Knights v Sea Eagles Saturday, April 1 3:00pm Glen Willow Stadium, Mudgee
6 Knights v Warriors Sunday, April 9 6:15pm McDonald Jones Stadium
7 Knights v Panthers Saturday, April 15 5:30pm McDonald Jones Stadium
8 Knights v Cowboys Saturday, April 22 7:35pm Qld Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
9 Knights v Eels Friday, April 28 6:00pm CommBank Stadium, Sydney
10 Bye      
11 Knights v Titans Sunday, May 14 2:00pm McDonald Jones Stadium
12 Knights v Sharks Saturday, May 20 3:00pm C.ex Coffs International Stadium, Coffs Harbour
13 Knights v Sea Eagles Sunday, May 28 4:05pm McDonald Jones Stadium
14 Bye      
15 Knights v Broncos Saturday, June 10 5:30pm Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
16 Knights v Roosters Saturday, June 17 3:00pm McDonald Jones Stadium
17 Knights v Panthers Saturday, June 24 5:30pm BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
18 Knights v Bulldogs Sunday, July 2 2:00pm Accor Stadium, Sydney
19 Bye      
20 Knights v Tigers Friday, July 14 8:00pm McDonald Jones Stadium
21 Knights v Storm Saturday, July 22 5:30pm McDonald Jones Stadium
22 Knights v Raiders Saturday, July 29 3:00pm GIO Stadium, Canberra
23 Knights v Dolphins Saturday, August 5 5:30pm Optus Stadium, Perth
24 Knights v Bulldogs Sunday, August 13 4:05pm McDonald Jones Stadium
25 Knights v Rabbitohs Sunday, August 20 2:00pm McDonald Jones Stadium
26 Knights v Sharks Sunday, August 27 4:05pm McDonald Jones Stadium
27 Knights v Dragons Saturday, September 2 7:35pm Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, Sydney

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