SEASON PREVIEW: NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS
Rugby League is a funny game and at times, there will be more questions than answers.
The rollercoaster ride that the Newcastle Knights have endured for the past two years has been incredible, having won a premiership from seventh position on the ladder in 2015 and falling to earn the wooden spoon the very next season.
Lack of depth and personnel hurt the Knights' NRL team last year and the Intrust Super Premiership NSW team, whose would-be core players were in and out of first grade throughout the season, inherited that negative effect.
Now, premiership-winning coach Matt Lantry has moved on and NRL veteran Simon Woolford has taken over.
The Knights’ pre-season has been troubled with the sudden unavailability of various potential first graders, leaving the make-up of the Intrust Super Premiership team in an area of unknown.
Woolford highlights that the pre-season has not been without some hiccups, but expects an improved Newcastle outfit in 2017.
“The pre season has gone pretty well, probably [more distractions] than we would have liked, injuries and that sort of stuff,” Woolford tells NSWRL.com.au.
“But generally speaking, the boys have worked hard just like they have at every other club.
“I’ve come here with my eyes wide open, it started with a lot of hard work but I think we have seen a steady improvement from the start of November until now.
“How many wins that will translate to on the footy field I’m not sure, but overall, I’m expecting to do a lot better than last year.”
2016 IN 16 WORDS OR LESS
A year to forget, winning only two games off the back of a premiership-winning season.
THEIR BIG FIVE
Bryce Donovan has come through the Knights under-20s system and can play a number of positions in the backline, who Woolford says is an exceptional trainer ready for a big 2017.
The X-Factor for Newcastle this year will be Faitotoa Faitotoa, who is a pocket rocket that plays in the middle, but also has the ability to add plenty of impact from the bench.
The Knights signed Tom Hughes from the Rabbitohs in the middle of last season and was one of the positive stories to come out of Newcastle. Hughes in an outstanding outside back that can cover fullback, wing and centre and could get a chance in the NRL soon.
Jamayne Taunoa-Brown has come up from Melbourne and will add massive impact into the Knights team in the front row position - he stands at 194 centimetres weighs in at 107 kilograms.
Jake McNamara is a determined player with a fantastic attitude that could see some time in the halves or at hooker this season.
Simon Woolford is an NRL veteran and a Canberra Raiders legend.
He played 234 games for the club between 1994 and 2006, before finishing his career at the St George Illawarra Dragons to round off a career of 262 games over 15 years.
He spent time coaching the Queanbeyan Blues in the Canberra Raiders Cup, even strapping the boots on for one game with Brett White in 2015 when the team was short of players.
He has now joined the support staff of his former coach at the Dragons, Nathan Brown, and will coach the Intrust Super Premiership NSW side at the same time.
“I am now full time up here, the role I have got here at the moment fits me perfectly,” Woolford says.
“I’m a third assistant coach, but also have the role of ISP [Intrust Super Premiership NSW] coach, so the next step is preparing for the opportunity and the challenge that lies ahead this year.
“I enjoy coaching and I’m loving every minute of it.”
The Knights acquired more mid-season signings than usual last year, securing the signatures of Tom Hughes, Brendan Elliott, Peter Mata’utia and Chris Adams. Those players now have the benefit of a full pre season in Newcastle, but there is still a question mark over if they will play out most of the season in the NRL or in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW.
Kurt Aldridge is a key player that can play in the halves or at hooker who played most of the season last year, but he has been signed by the Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles.
Given the position the Knights are in as a club and the adversity they have had to deal with leading up to the season, it would be a remarkable effort to make the finals in 2017. In saying that, a new coach is a fresh start and if the Knights’ polarising last two seasons are anything to go by, they have proven that Rugby League is a funny game that can go around in circles. We can’t say that the Knights will definitely make the finals, but expect a much-improved side from last year.