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The Newcastle Knights took the competition by storm in September 2015, going from a seventh-place regular-season finish to NSW Cup Premiers (see video above) after a stunning form reversal. It was a surprising finish to the season for the 2014 Grand Finalists as first-year coach Matt Lantry showed his ability to get the most out of his players in the big games. While there’s no reason they can’t repeat the feat in 2016, Lantry will hope to combat complacency and has highlighted significant areas of improvement for the upcoming season.

Of particular importance will be the side’s reaction to major playing and coaching changes at NRL and NSW Cup levels; as the players head into the second year under Lantry they will also have to impress incoming NRL coach Nathan Brown. As the first club in more than 60 years to earn a first grade wooden spoon and reserve grade premiership, there is a high chance the side will pay for its success.

Off-season focus: On the cusp of missing the finals for a number of weeks in 2015, it’s easy to identify defence as a key focus across the park. Lantry explains that this approach is club-wide: “Whether it be our ruck control, our edge defence or our middle-third 'D' – that’s been the biggest focus. Our record for the last few years hasn’t been great defensively within the NRL and as a club it’s certainly something that we’re working extremely hard on.”

Biggest gain: While the team has signed five players in the off-season, Newcastle has historically been blessed with a thriving junior nursery which it will source for more local talent. “There are certainly some guys that have come out of the local competition here in Newcastle that will give themselves every opportunity to play NSW Cup,” Lantry reveals. “I’d be looking at Steve Waetford from the Pickers, or Chris Hyde from Macquarie, who’s quite a good hooker and a part of the NRL Rookie program as well.”

Toughest loss: The side was blessed by the services of Clint Newton last year, who was a calming influence under pressure and offered vital assistance to Lantry in his first year. How the side responds to his departure, Lantry says, will be key to the outcome of the season. “I think his knowledge is the biggest loss,” says the coach. “I wouldn’t be asking anyone to replace the role that Clint played, but everyone’s got to pick up a little bit to try and compensate for that loss.”

Coach Lantry says: “Whenever you’re looking back at the past you leave yourself quite vulnerable. Whilst it’s a really good achievement last year with what the group achieved, we can’t focus on that and think that success is just going to happen for us. Realistically, premierships are nice but one of the things that we judge ourselves on as a club is how many guys we produce that are ready to play first grade; forever and a day for us it’ll be about the development of the player and ensuring that they’re ready to play NRL if the opportunity arises if they’re good enough.”

Future star: After some solid performances in 2015, three NRL selections as 18th man and impressive form in the Auckland Nines tournament, 21 year-old Jaelen Feeney will look to finally crack the NRL side at some point this season. He switches from the halves to fullback this year, a move which coaching staff expect to pay off. How long it takes Feeney to adapt may have major effects on both teams.

We reckon: It’s never easy to look past the premiers as genuine contenders the following season, but the Knights need to ensure they work hard to improve in the areas they’ve identified. Having used a total of 50 players throughout the regular season, with a less-than-impressive defensive record and a last-place finish for the NRL side, the side will hope for a more consistent first grade outfit and will work hard to fill the void left by their captain. With new defensive structures likely to be implemented by NRL coach Nathan Brown across all grades, 2016 could realistically go either way for Newcastle. A safe bet is that another year of experience will keep them en route for a top-four finish this season.

Comings and goings

Gains: David Bhana (New Zealand Warriors), Krys Freeman (Norths Devils), Will Pearsall (Manly Sea Eagles), Takina Vailea (Illawarra Cutters).

Losses: Kerrod Holland (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Clint Newton (retired), Damian Sironen (Illawarra Cutters), Honeti Tuha (Parramatta Eels), Carlos Tuimavave (Hull FC), Marvin Falipo (retired), Paterika Vaivai (released)

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