Round 1 Predicted Teams – Knights: Ponga in doubt for season start in first hiccup for halves switch
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2023, the Knights are a team in need of a shake-up.
Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien recognises there needs to be change to get the Knights firing again and that will revolve around getting marquee star Kalyn Ponga more involved.
That has taken a backwards step, however, as his captain was revealed to have suffered a calf injury that will rule him out of the All Stars game – where he has previously represented his Maori heritage – and potentially both trials, leaving him in a race to gain sharpness before Round 1.
Ponga is shifting into the halves for 2023, with a training plan adapted to suit the demands of front-line defence having been agreed as early as last year, as soon as Ponga was ruled out for the season due to repeat concussions.
Newcastle have sealed a deal for Sharks speedster Lachie Miller to make an immediate switch so he is likely to start the season at fullback.
The Knights were one of the NRL’s biggest underachievers last year and O’Brien enters the season under pressure after the team took a massive step backwards following back-to-back finals campaigns.
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Ponga and co-captain Jayden Brailey were injured for large portions of last season and the Knights can’t afford lengthy absences among their main players as they lack depth in the spine.
There are five new faces and all have the potential to make an impact.
Experienced forward Adam Elliott has made the switch after a season restoring his reputation on and off the field at the Raiders while Jack Hetherington has headed north from the Bulldogs where his stint was marred by suspensions and injury.
After pursuing Luke Brooks to solve their halfback dilemma, the Knights landed his Wests Tigers teammate Jackson Hastings, who can be the on-field organiser they lacked last season following Mitchell Pearce’s departure to the Super League.
Brisbane’s Tyson Gamble will likely end up as a bench utility while Titans winger Greg Marzhew should deliver plenty of metres out of the backfield and attacking strikepower out wide.
David Klemmer’s switch to the Wests Tigers as part of the trade for Hastings leaves a big hole in terms of experience and go-forward up front.
The departure of fellow forwards Mitchell Barnett (Warriors), Jirah Momoisea (Eels), Pasami Saulo (Raiders) and Sauaso Sue (Hull KR) has also reduced Newcastle’s depth in the pack.
Starting halves Anthony Milford (Dolphins) and Jake Clifford (Hull FC), back-up hooker Chris Randall (Titans) and utility Tex Hoy (Hull FC) round out an exodus of NRL-level talent even if many of them failed to cement regular spots.
Key spots to unlock
The Ponga predicament is central to the team’s make-up. The club will be hoping he can stay on the field in the halves full-time, with Miller shoring up the fullback spot ahead of injury-plagued English fullback Bailey Hodgson as there are no other specialist fullbacks in the squad.
The Saifiti twins will likely be the starting props with Klemmer gone with Hetherington and Elliott potentially starting off as one of the bench options for the middle-forward rotation.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Lachlan Miller
2 Dominic Young
3 Dane Gagai
4 Bradman Best
5 Greg Marzhew
6 Kalyn Ponga
7 Jackson Hastings
8 Daniel Saifiti
9 Jayden Brailey
10 Jacob Saifiti
11 Tyson Frizell
12 Lachlan Fitzgibbon
13 Kurt Mann
14 Tyson Gamble
15 Jack Hetherington
16 Brodie Jones
17 Adam Elliott
Other squad members: Mat Croker (suspended until Round 3), Bailey Hodgson, Adam Clune, Dylan Lucas, Enari Tuala, Hymel Hunt, Jack Johns, Krystian Mapapalangi, Leo Thompson, Phoenix Crossland, Simi Sasagi.
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