NRL Round 1 predicted teams: Newcastle Knights – halves face competition from new recruits but season hinges on Ponga
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, the Knights are dark horses for the top four.
The Knights went from potentially punting their coach mid-season to storming into the finals in 2023 but the big question is whether they can carry that momentum into the new year.
Kalyn Ponga thankfully avoided any further concussion dramas to surge into career-best form which took him all the way to the Dally M Medal and propelled Newcastle into fifth spot.
After being bounced out of the second week of the finals in Auckland, they have improved their roster over the off-season with the long-awaited arrival of two English rising stars in Will Pryce and Kai Pearce-Paul.
The return of Jayden Brailey at hooker after another serious knee injury should add starch to the Knights in the middle although his replacement, Phoenix Crossland, gave the team great value in the role last year and at worst should find a spot on the interchange in 2024 as a utility.
Knights coach Adam O’Brien is going into the season with a more settled squad than recent years but needs to decide early whether he will stick with the halves which took his team to the finals or revamp his playmakers with fresh blood in Pryce or Jack Cogger.
Pryce is just 21 and may take his time to find his feet in the NRL but the Knights brought him into the fold to solve their five-eighth problem after Ponga failed to fire in the position before journeyman Tyson Gamble was given the gig.
Pearce-Paul is a year older and is a towering forward who could cause plenty of problems down an edge.
Cogger has returned home after stints at Canterbury, the Super League and Penrith and could also be a playmaking option while another ex-Panther in Tom Jenkins will boost Newcastle’s depth on the wings.
Former Rabbitohs forward Jed Cartwright could also prove a handy acquisition as an interchange player or starting second-rower.
Dominic Young’s departure to the Roosters leaves a big hole on the flank while utility back Lachlan Miller, playmaker Adam Clune, back-up hooker Fa’amanu Brown and second-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon have jetted off to the Super League.
Experienced utility Kurt Mann has switched to the Bulldogs while young forward Simi Sasagi has relocated to the Raiders.
Hymel Hunt and Jack Johns have also left after not getting a new deal.
Key spots to unlock
Young’s wing spot is likely to go to experienced campaigner Enari Tuala although Jenkins scored five tries in his six appearances for Penrith so he could be the better long-term candidate.
The halves are a four-way battle between incumbent chief playmaker Jackson Hastings and Gamble, with Pryce and Cogger also having claims to a starting gig.
Whichever way O’Brien goes with his halves, he needs to lock the combination in early as the spine has been an ever-evolving quartet at Newcastle in recent seasons.
With Fitzgibbon gone, the left edge is up for grabs in the pack and Pearce-Paul, Cartwright and perhaps Brodie Jones could pack down opposite Tyson Frizell, who turned back the clock with his form in 2023.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Kalyn Ponga
2 Enari Tuala
3 Dane Gagai
4 Bradman Best
5 Greg Marzhew
6 Will Pryce
7 Jackson Hastings
8 Daniel Saifiti
9 Jayden Brailey
10 Jacob Saifiti
11 Tyson Frizell
12 Kai Pearce-Paul
13 Adam Elliott
14 Phoenix Crossland
15 Jed Cartwright
16 Jack Hetherington
17 Leo Thompson
Other squad members: Jack Cogger, David Armstrong, Dylan Lucas, Riley Jones, Paul Bryan, Myles Martin, Mathew Croker, Tyson Gamble, Thomas Jenkins, Ryan Rivett, Krystian Mapapalangi, Brodie Jones.