While the signing of Mitchell Pearce obviously ups the star factor in the Hunter, the Knights will be hoping 2018 marks a significant step forward in their progress under head coach Nathan Brown and the new ownership structure at the club.
Pearce is far and away the sort of marquee signing the club has failed to attract in recent years and coupled with some exciting young players and a crop of good talent battle-hardened over the last couple of seasons, the Knights could be set for a huge move in the right direction this season.
The capture of potential superstar Kalyn Ponga from the Cowboys could also prove a masterstroke for the beleaguered club while existing talent like Nathan Ross and Brock Lamb will hold key roles once again.
Lamb will probably start the year behind Connor Watson with the former Rooster expected to link up with Pearce in the halves, but there are plenty across the Hunter who think Lamb is too good to be kept out of the 17 for long.
The new faces
Much of the pre-season hype around the Knights comes from their strong, targeted recruitment campaign last year. While Mitchell Pearce is undoubtedly the feather in the cap for the Knights, bringing in a mix of proven stars and exciting young talent puts the club in a good position moving forward.
The previously mentioned Connor Watson and Kalyn Ponga are joined by Herman Ese’ese and Tautau Moga from the Broncos and experienced guys like Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman who add a significant amount of top-level NRL game time, which should stiffen up the middle of the park and provide a decent platform for the more creative players in the side to build on.
The big positive amongst those brought in by the Knights is the level of potential amongst a set of young, talented kids.
Players like Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson have all the potential in the world and if they realise that in the Hunter, then the Knights are well and truly on the right track.
Signings: Herman Ese'ese (Brisbane Broncos, 2020), Slade Griffin (Melbourne Storm, 2019), Aidan Guerra (Sydney Roosters, 2020), Christian Hazard (2018), Chris Heighington (Cronulla Sharks, 2018), Jack Johns (2018), Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Sydney Roosters, 2019), Jacob Lillyman (New Zealand Warriors, 2018), Tautau Moga (Brisbane Broncos, 2020), Brent Naden (Canberra Raiders, 2018), Mitchell Pearce (Sydney Roosters, 2021), Kalyn Ponga (North Queensland Cowboys, 2021), Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters, 2020).
Amongst those departing the Newcastle Knights ahead of the 2018 season, most have either been adequately replaced by a new signing or rising youngster or they were not up the NRL standard, anyway.
The only genuine star player lost to a rival is Dane Gagai, who opted to leave the Knights and link up with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Gagai is a Queensland and Australia representative level player and leaves a big hole at the Knights in 2018.
Beyond that, the retirement of guys like Anthony Tupou, Rory Kostjasyn and Josh Starling, as well as the release of players like Jarrod Mullen and Jaelen Feeney mean dollars were freed up to allow recruitment and players who would not have made much of an impact on the upcoming campaign were moved on.
Departures: David Bhana (released), Brendan Elliot (Gold Coast Titans), Jaelen Feeney (released), Dane Gagai (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jacob Gagan (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Rory Kostjasyn (retired), Peter Mata'utia (Leigh Centurions), Sam Mataora (retired), Jarrod Mullen (released), Mickey Paea (Hull FC), Pauli Pauli (Wakefield Trinity), Will Pearsall (released), Tyler Randell (Wakefield Trinity), Josh Starling (retired), Jack Stockwell (Gold Coast Titans), Anthony Tupou (retired), Joe Wardle (Castleford Tigers).
|1||Kalyn Ponga||10||Daniel Saifiti|
|2||Nathan Ross||11||Aidan Guerra|
|3||Tautau Moga||12||Chris Heighington|
|4||Shaun Kenny-Dowall||13||Mitch Barnett|
|6||Connor Watson||14||Jamie Buhrer|
|7||Mitchell Pearce||15||Herman Ese'ese|
|8||Jacob Lillyman||16||Jacob Saifiti|
|9||Danny Levi||17||Brock Lamb|
It will come as no surprise that the former Roosters halfback ranks among the most important players for the Knights in 2018. Blessed with plenty of natural ability and a high work-rate, Pearce had one of his better seasons at club level with the Chooks last season and found himself recalled into the New South Wales Blues' squad once again.
While his time back in the Origin arena failed spectacularly once again, Pearce has proven time and time again that he is an NRL-quality halfback and with the right weapons at his disposal, he can be a tremendous game manager and win games of football.
Pearce will take an immediate leadership role at the Knights with a squad chock-full of fresh faces and that added pressure could make or break him moving forward.
Expected to get the first crack at partnering Pearce in the halves, another former Rooster Connor Watson could be on the verge of a breakout season at NRL level.
Watson moved north chasing opportunity, and it's safe to say Knights' coach Nathan Brown will be excited at the prospect of what Watson can do partnering Pearce and steering his side around the park in 2018.
There was a line of clubs a mile long trying to sign Kalyn Ponga when it became apparent he would leave Townsville, but it was the Knights who made him an offer he couldn't refuse and brought the sensational young prodigy to the Hunter.
New halfback Mitchell Pearce dubbed Ponga the "next NRL superstar" when talking to Channel Nine recently, and it's hard to argue with him given the immense potential and talent at Ponga's disposal.
The addition of stars like Ponga and Watson should see a marked improvement in the offensive expansivity of the Knights, with more free-flowing attack definitely on the cards in 2018.
Overall, the Knights 2018 draw is fairly middle of the road. Newcastle are not at the top of the list when it comes to the toughest schedules in the league this season, nor are they at the easy end of proceedings either, which makes sense given their recent form and the significant overhaul of the squad.
A round one clash with the Manly Sea Eagles at home could set the tone for the first few weeks of the season. A fast start could propel this young Knights side and set them up for a decent campaign while a sizeable loss could undo much of the good press coming through the off-season.
Round one won't make or break things, but a win against a decent side like the Sea Eagles could get things underway in the right manner.
Beyond that, a round three trip to take on the Roosters will have plenty of feeling behind it as players like Mitchell Pearce, Connor Watson, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Aidan Guerra travel to take on their former employer.
2018 stands as the perfect opportunity for the Knights to build on late-season momentum from last year and move off the bottom of the ladder.
Based on their recruitment and development, I can't see Newcastle snaring yet another wooden spoon, so I think they'll likely fill out anywhere from 11th down to 15th, which could be seen as a significant step in the right direction, especially with a marquee win or two along the way.
How do you think the Knights will fare in 2018? Let us know in the comments and poll below.