Newcastle Knights 2020 Team Preview

2019 wasn’t a fun year for a Knights fan. The team came running out of the blocks like their laces were tied and stumbled to a 1-5 record over the first six weeks. Their record was only that “good” thanks to an 88 metre intercept try from Edrick Lee in the 75th minute of their season opener. 

The capitulation included a golden point loss to the Dragons and a complete belting at the hands of the Titans. What a f***ing embarrassment that was.

The season improved immensely over the next eight weeks. The Knights looked like contenders, winning seven games including big wins over the Eels, Rabbits, Roosters and Broncos. Good times. But then just as I was feeling optimistic, good old Newcastle football from the “teens” decade came back with only two wins from the last eight games. And we got PUMPED in a few of those.

But now I’m back on the bandwagon. It’s a new team. There’s a new coach. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade. Let’s turn this bish around.

In and Outs (from NRL.com)

Ins – Jayden Brailey (Sharks), Bradman Best, Star To’a, Jirah Momoisea (upgraded from development contracts), Enari Tuala (Cowboys), Gehamat Shibasaki (Broncos)

Unsigned/Losses – Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Hull KR), James Gavet (Huddersfield), Jamie Buhrer, Zac Woolford (unsigned), Jesse Ramien (Sharks), Slade Griffin, Nathan Ross (retired), Danny Levi (Sea Eagles), Beau Fermor (Titans)

Predicted 17

1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Hymel Hunt 3. Bradman Best 4. Gehamat Shibasaki 5. Edrick Lee 6. Kurt Mann 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Daniel Saifiti 9. Jayden Brailey 10. David Klemmer 11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 12. Sione Mata’utia 13. Mitch Barnett 

14. Connor Watson 15. Aiden Guerra 16. Tim Glasby 17. Herman Ese’ese

* The backline has a lot of question marks at the moment, and everyone’s predicted 17’s are just best educated guess as to who lines up in round 1. 

Other squad members: Joshua King, Brodie Jones, Mason Lino, Phoenix Crossland, Jacob Saifiti, Pasami Saulo, Tautau Moga, Star To’a, Enari Tuala

Draw Analysis

The Knights have, what I would call, a favourable draw in 2020. They play the Tigers, Warriors and Bulldogs twice each, while only having to meet the Roosters, Raiders, Eels and Storm once for the season (finals pending). On paper, it looks pretty good. It gets slightly better too when you note that one of their two meetings with the Rabbits is in the round 12 bye week when Souths will likely be without Cook, Latrell, Murray and possibly Walker due to Origin commitments.

They’ve got a chance to get off to a good start too with winnable opening games against the Warriors at home, away games to face the Tigers and Sharks, then a round 4 home game against the Cowboys.

It gets a lot tougher in round 10 with a stretch which includes their only games against the Chooks and Storm (Sydney (a), Sharks, Rabbits (origin), Panthers (a), Storm)). 

GUNS

Kalyn Ponga ($634.3k, FLB) 2019 average 68.3

I won’t go into this one too deeply. Everyone knows all about Ponga and I’m sure you’re all sick of my consistent gushing by now. But here are some facts:

  • Started 2019 in the halves and was rubbish, averaging 41.3 PPG over those three weeks;
  • Gave up the goal-kicking to Mason Lino in round 13 (ish) and averaged 57.2 PPG thereafter which is boosted by games of 105, 84, 79;
  • With both the fullback jersey and kicking tee; Ponga averaged 90.8 PPG from round 4-11.

Now Ponga is locked into the #1, he’s said to want the kicking responsibility once more, and he has really impressed his new coach. O’Brien has said “It’s clear to me Kalyn’s an elite fullback but he’s not at his ceiling yet”. By my eye (rose-coloured glasses and all), KP is undervalued to start the year. Not that he’ll average 91, but he’s got some improvement in him for what is essentially a 2nd tier fullback.

David Klemmer ($617.4k, FRF) 2019 average 66.4

I think I said last preseason that Klemmer needed to have a big year in order for the Knights to compete. Well, he had a huge year; and the Knights did not compete. So, I was half right.

Klem put together a career-best SuperCoach season. His last three seasons at the Dogs saw him return 57, 57 and 58 averages. His first at the Knights and he pumped that up to 66 per game. He increased his minutes to 61 and his PPM to 1.09. In fact, he had only three games all year under his previous best average, and those were all around Origin time.

What that means for this year is that Klemmer will enter the 2020 season as the second most expensive FRF. With almost 50% of the competition already locking in Payne Haas, and it’s hard to argue against that, there’s not a lot of room to also include Klem. As a fan, I hope to see a couple of the other boys stepping up to provide a bit more support, but I also don’t want the big man to reduce his stellar workrate. But it’s hard to see where the improvement comes from. If you are buying Klemmer to start the year, you’re just hoping he maintains the same energy and keeps knocking up consistent scores.

Mitch Barnett ($578k, FRF) 2019 average 62.2

Barnett had a very nice bounce-back year. I don’t know if you’d technically class him as a “gun” but he had a top 9 finish in 2019 for 2RF’s so for the sake of this article, let’s roll with it.

He came to the Knights halfway through the 2016 season and dominated at the backend to average 67. The next year, in his first full season of NRL, Barnett slipped a little but still had a very impressive 57 PPG. But then he crashed out hard in 2018 to only average 48. Part of it was due to injury (scored 2 pts from 6 mins in round 2), part of it was new roles and structures, but basically it was just a return to the means. Then Mitch started 2019 on the bench, got promoted to starting prop, then to lock, before being moved to the edge in round 4. Playing back in his more favourable position and role, he averaged 65 points for the rest of the year.

My concern is that Barnett is being tipped to start the year in the #13 jersey, with Sione and Fitzy on the edges. It’s not quite the prop position but it does mean more defensive work, which may tire the man before he can produce the attack that saw him putting up good scores last year.

Sleepers

Lachlan Fitzgibbon ($443.4k, 2RF) 2019 average 47.4

Not much in the “Sleeper” category at the Knights, but Fitzgibbon is one who is truly tempting me.

Starting with him in 2019, I was predicting a slight increase towards the 65 PPG mark. Instead, the Lachy Fitz ride was a complete sh*t-show and instantly derailed my entire season from the get-go. One that I never recovered from. Fitzy went from a 62 average, to scoring over that mark three times for the whole season. In hindsight, the main problem was that I stayed on that sinking ship way too long, but let’s blame him.

I’m not even sure what the problem was. Yes, he had a couple of shortened games but not enough to be a major factor in the downfall. He was still running on the left off Ponga, but just didn’t have it last year. A few close calls near the line too which could have boosted his scores and confidence. I honestly don’t know what to tell you apart from maybe it was a belated sophomore slump, only in his third year.

What I’m focusing on for this upcoming season is that he’ll still be playing 80 minutes and will be on the left by Ponga’s attacking side. He had averaged 58 and 62 over the two previous seasons respectively and I’m hoping that the new coach will be the catalyst that the team needs to get a kick in the ass, Fitzy specifically. Also, his career arc pretty closely resembles Mitch Barnett….just sayin’.

Busts

Connor Watson ($506.7k, 5/8 / HOK) 2019 average 54.5

Watson has been one of the few shining Knights since he arrived in the Hunter in 2018. He was a cut-priced $287k to start that season but has since gone on to average over 55 PPG over 36 games. His running game is up there with the best in the league which is a big reason why he still averaged 55 despite playing six of his 21 games from the bench. Actually, in those games he still scored 51 PPG.

He spent much of last season being bounced around into different positions, somewhat of a theme in this section. Starting the year at fullback in the failed Ponga experiment, he then swapped into 5/8 after that, before spending most of the latter half of the year in dummy half, where he did a lot of his damage. Watson scored 73.4 PPG when starting at the #9. This is why I’m putting him here. The Knights have obviously brought in a specialist hooker who’s aiming to play 80 minutes, or close to. Pearce and Ponga are locked into other spine positions, and Mann will start at 5/8 but has serious competition to stay there (more on that next). That leaves Watson as the likely utility. There’s been some talk of him playing lock, but it won’t be as a starter. It’s simply so they can find a place to play him on a weekly basis, rotating through with Barnett and Sione would be my best guess (remember that Barnett has some history playing prop when needed). It would give the Knights another wrinkle in attack but isn’t enough of a sure-role to take a SuperCoach risk.

Kurt Mann ($287.1k, FLB / CTW) 2019 average 30.9

I can understand the appeal. I really can. You’re not picking him in your fullback spots but there’s not too many sub-$300k CTW’s who look like playing early on at this stage. He’s all-but locked in a round 1 starting berth but at 5/8; not CTW or FLB as he’s been assigned in SuperCoach. And then there’s those early Melbourne and St George years where he averaged 47, 40, 45 and 48 suggesting he might even be underpriced.

He’s cheap; he’s starting; he’s a CTW bench option. But, now the cons.

The problem with those previous averages is that they were years ago. The 48 average (the latest of those) was from 2017. In his last year at the Dragons and first at the Knights, he’s gone for 28 and 31. So, which of the two stretches is the accurate representation? You have to lean towards the latter for the time being. It’s been two seasons of the same. One year I could forgive. Not two. That’s a pattern. A lot has to do with his versatility and the chopping and changing of positions, but that’s some of his real-life appeal. O’Brien can throw Mann in the centre’s, at fullback (Corey Parker forbid), 5/8 and hooker. Or just as the utility on the bench. Then there’s Mason Lino and Phoenix Crossland. One of these guys could talk over as the halves starter at any given moment. If Mann does continue to struggle, he won’t last too long in the top side.

Every year we panic for CTW cheapies and every year, they pop up in the round 1 TLT. For me, there are too many questions to start with Mann and, more than likely, far better options. Speaking of….

Cheapies

Bradman Best ($240.7k, FLB / CTW) 2019 average 37.0

Best came onto the scene during the Knights late season collapse. He played the last three rounds of the year and scored 26, 60 (with a try) and 25. In those games, the Knights lost to the Tigers 48-4, beat the Titans 38-4, then got demolished by the Panthers 54-10. Notice a pattern?

Best is priced at about a 26 point average (by comparison, Gerard Beale is $240.9k with a 25.9 av from 11 games) so is arguably a touch underpriced. In another comparison, Mann averaged 7 points less and is $50k more expensive. Best also averaged 28 PPG in just base+power stats in his three games. While that’s not amazing, it’s a good starting point and with natural progression, another preseason under his belt and better developed combinations, improvement should just naturally occur.

Best of all (no pun intended), and one of the main reasons I’m excited to start with him, Best scored his one career try against the Titans, playing at left centre. His try came courtesy of a try-assist from Kalyn Ponga. So fingers crossed….

Gehamat Shibasaki ($286.4k, CTW) 2019 average 30.8

Edrick Lee, Hymel Hunt and Best have three of the outside backs spots in hand but whoever locks down that final CTW spot is coming into cheapie territory. Competing for it are Starford To’a (my pick, $245.4k,  FLB / CTW), Tautau Moga ($245.4k, CTW), and Shibasaki.

Shiba appears to be the frontrunner at this stage as Coach O’Brien loves him (for some reason). 

Outside of those two, Phoenix Crossland ($184.9K, 5/8) is a genuine cheapie option and one who was in line for NRL SuperCoach’s most popular player leading into round 1. Unfortunately for us, he’s battling a case of osteitis pubis which will keep him sidelined for the opening round at least. Sure to be a must-have when he does return, the kid is said to be the next Darren Lockyer (which actually doesn’t bode well for his SuperCoach potential).

Jacob Saifiti ($208.4k, FRF / 2RF) is another cheap option but is just on the outer at the moment behind Klem, Glasby, Fitzy, Barnett, Sione, Guerra, other Saifiti, Ese’ese and even Watson. However, if things go his way with the inevitable injuries that occur in every NRL season, Jacob could find himself as a solid downgrade option at some point.

Forgive my optimistic take on the Knights season ahead. It’s bred more from hope than any type of serious insight. For all of us long-suffering fans, here’s hoping that Adam O’Brien can build on the foundation Nathan Brown has built over the past few years. It’s an exciting time right now.

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Mr Perfect
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Mr Perfect

Great write up Semi. Ponga is the only person who has never left my side.

Would you consider starting with Crossland in the hope that Mann gets dropped early into the season?

rockafella
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rockafella

People’s expectations of the knights was over the top last year.
Top 8 was a goal but anything from 15th up was a bonus for a team with three spoons in a row ..

Zeppelin
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Zeppelin

Nah question A team which fielded three state of origin forwards (Klemmer, Saifiti, Glasby), a state of origin half (Pearce) and a state of origin fullback (Ponga) definitely should be making the 8 and should have aspirations of top 4.

I don't pray to God; I pray to DCE
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I don't pray to God; I pray to DCE

I don’t see how they were, as @Zeppelin pointed out, they had a number of representative forwards, a half and FB. They also had one of the better centres in Ramien, and a lot of depth throughout the squad.

They had more than enough talent to make the top-8, and push for a top-4 berth (considerably more than the Tigers, who finished above them); lack of coaching and not playing to their abilities was their downfall.

Zeppelin
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Zeppelin

1.70 last year but 2.1 this year silly

Twist
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Twist

Hey mate, price for Klemmer is wrong – he’s $617k. Got me all excited!

Qldian
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Qldian

Always loved your write ups Semi and looking forward to your next one.

An interesting senario that could occur is: Mann doesn’t excell, Lino comes back, Lino takes goal kicking back off Ponga, Lino is more dominant ball player than Mann thus Ponga turns out not to be as juicy as a lot would like/expect.
Thats SC for us, and personally I think Mann will keep his 5/8 spot for a while, letting Ponga be more dominant in attack and both score well.

SupercoachGodsBeNice
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The coach has come out and wants to be more settled in the spine.
Issue is does the more settled spine start a few weeks into the season

I’ll likely start with Mann cos I’m going cheapish in my CTW and hope he can get 6-8 weeks out of him

Nice write up Semi and hopefully a decent year for your boys

Zeppelin
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Zeppelin

Good preview smile

You’ve made me re-think Barnett. He’d been in my team from the very first draft and with a 65 avg and a 2% ownership i was happy to have the POD. His minutes do concern me though, especially with the addition of Watson to the FWD pack.

On Watson, WTF dont they play him at hooker? In SC he’s a gun there but also in real NRL he’s dynamic there and really gives the team a spark.