Many sides may look at an 11th placed finish and consider it a disappointment but for Newcastle, 2018 has to be counted a success given they've finished bottom of the ladder the past two years. Coach Nathan Brown has been through an arduous period of rebuilding and 2018 was the first test of his aggressive recruitment drive. Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra and Connor Watson joined a host of new faces in the Hunter and initially, it looked fairly promising for the Novacastrians.
If there was a clear highlight for Newcastle, it had to be their start to the season. Kicking off the season proper at home in front of a 23,000 strong Hunter crowd, the Knights went to battle with the Sea Eagles. With a host of new recruits, expectations were high and the recruitment of Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce and some experienced heads had filled Newcastle fans with hope that 2018 would truly be the year in which Newcastle was 'rebuilt'.
Newcastle looked a much-improved outfit from the outset of that game but a 77th-minute penalty goal from Daly Cherry-Evans levelled the scores and provided our first golden-point clash of the season. After eight minutes of toing and froing and a host of field goals attempts, up stepped marquee recruit, Mitchell Pearce. Plenty had been made of Pearce's switch to the Knights and with a name like Andrew Johns having worn the number seven jersey, the former Rooster had huge boots to fill. Up he stepped and slotted the match winner from 20 metres out to secure a famous first-round victory for the Novacastrian’s. It was the perfect way to begin their season and suggested that their recruitment strategy had finally come up trumps.
There were a series of lowlights for Newcastle and they all began with a last-minute win. Trailing the Tigers by two points at Scully Park Tamworth in Round 7, Shaun Kenny-Dowall scored a match winner with just minutes remaining to steal victory 22-20. The jubilation that followed would later turn to devastation as halfback Mitchell Pearce was ruled out for seven weeks with a pectoral tear. It would ultimately be the beginning of the end for the Knights as they went on a losing month of football.
Pearce had been touted as the missing piece to the Knights finals puzzle and had shown early signs that he could be the man to lead them to an unlikely finals berth. From that game, Pearce missed seven matches and of those, Newcastle managed just two wins, ending their season before it had a chance to get going. By the time Pearce returned, their season had slipped away and pride was the only thing Newcastle had left to play for.
No surprises here, with pre-season recruit and fullback – Kalyn Ponga - the clear standout. Ponga was immense during his first full season in the NRL and his 2018 stats go to show just how dominant he was. He topped the Knights’ count for line break assists (13), had the second most try-assist (12) behind Mitchell Pearce, and made a mind-boggling 140 tackle busts. The next closest was Herman Ese’Ese - and he only made 74.
Ponga's peers voted him the youngest ever recipient of the Player's Champion at this year's Player's Association awards, showing just how highly regarded the Knight's fullback is. It’s a shame Ponga struggled with injury throughout the year otherwise, he would have been a genuine contender for the Dally M Medal. It was a huge gamble for Newcastle to take the risk on Ponga but after his debut season in the Blue and Red, Knight’s fans can be confident that this gamble will well and truly pay off.
One word; DEFENCE. While the Knights may have finished in 11th position on the ladder at season’s end, that result masked their worrying defensive frailties. The Knights had the second worst defensive record in the competition with 607 points scored against them in Season 2018. The only side worse was Manly meaning that even 'wooden-spooners' Parramatta had a more impressive defence. That poor defensive performance was exposed with a couple of blowout scorelines against the Storm (40-14 in Round 6) and Sharks (48-10 in Round 12).
Half of Newcastle’s lineup hadn’t played together before, so you could excuse them for taking a little time to find their feet. The addition of premiership winners Chris Heighington and Aidan Guerra added experience and starch to their pack, but it was out wide where Newcastle was most vulnerable. Their constant chopping and changing of the backline (some forced through injury, some voluntary) hampered their cohesion and sides easily found a way around their rushing wingers.
2019: A brief look ahead
Gains: Tim Glasby (Melbourne), Edrick Lee (Cronulla), Jesse Ramien (Cronulla).
Losses: Jack Cogger (Bulldogs), Chris Heighington (Retired), Brock Lamb (Released), Jacob Lillyman (Retired), Chanel Mata'utia (Released), Pat Mata'utia (Released), Nick Meaney (Bulldogs), Dylan Phythian (Released).
There are some quality pickups for the Newcastle side in 2019 with all three additions coming off the back of finals football this year. Queensland representative Tim Glasby will add much-needed experience to the Knights pack and will prove a more than capable mentor for youngsters Daniel and Jacob Saifiti.
The real worry for Newcastle is their lack of halves depth next year. Both Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson spent large parts of 2018 on the sideline and when they did, Newcastle struggled. The Knights lose Jack Cogger and Brock Lamb for next year and without any replacements, you do wonder what the plan is should injury strike next year. Nathan Brown has already voiced his desire to shift Kalyn Ponga to five-eighth and while Ponga will no doubt succeed in the number six jersey, you would hope that Newcastle will be on the lookout for a quality half during the offseason.
Are Newcastle capable of a top-eight finish in 2019? Let us know in the comments below.