NRL | Newcastle Knights officials focus on roster stability

THEY haven’t even finalised a squad for the coming season, but Knights officials are already turning their attention towards assembling a roster for 2019 and beyond.

As of Wednesday this week, a host of Newcastle players were officially entitled to start negotiating with rival clubs.

And while Newcastle coach Nathan Brown was content to release more than a dozen players at the end of the season just completed, this time around some of those coming off contract would appear retention priorities.

The list includes Newcastle’s co-captains, Sione Mata’utia and Jamie Buhrer, Trent Hodkinson, Brock Lamb, Josh King, Sam Stone, Ken Sio, Luke Yates, Jack Cogger, Dylan Phythian, Cory Denniss, Tyrone Amey and Chanel and Pat Mata’utia, as well as new recruits Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman.

The Knights have already locked in 10 players – Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson, Danny Levi, Nathan Ross, Herman Ese’ese, Daniel and Jacob Saifiti, Mitch Barnett, Tautau Moga and Aidan Guerra – until at least the end of the 2020 season.

New Knights chief executive Phil Gardner said in an ideal world, Newcastle would have their 2018 squad in place and also retained the majority of players Brown wanted to keep beyond that.

“Because we’ve been focused on our 2018 roster, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Gardner said.

“[Football manager] Darren Mooney, God bless him, is doing a great job, but realistically most of the other clubs are already working on their 2019 and 2020 rosters.

“We need to catch up with them.

“We need to decide who our long-term players are, and these are tough calls. We don’t want to lose the players that we’ve invested a lot of time and effort in.

“We’ve got to hold onto them, and hopefully there will be some good news in the not-too-distant future.”

Coach Brown said “all clubs these days are looking a fair way in advance” when it comes to roster management.

“Going forward for 2019 and ’20, clubs are always looking forward a lot more than they used to,” he said.

“The salary cap is an ongoing sort of a beast.

“You’ve got younger players coming into squads, people achieving bonuses that people may not have thought they'd get this early – it’s such a complex thing, the salary cap.”

Newcastle announced two weeks ago that the Saifiti twins, who have established themselves in first grade over the past two seasons, had signed two-year contract extensions.

The Knights had kicked off preliminary discussions with Sione Mata’utia about extending his stay for another three seasons, but those talks have been put on hold until he has been cleared to resume playing after a series of concussions.

The futures of young playmakers Lamb and Cogger may hinge on whether Newcastle are able to sign disgruntled Roosters star Mitchell Pearce – or another experienced halfback.

Prop Josh King has reportedly attracted interest from the Broncos, but the Knights rate him highly and will be hoping they can keep him.

Buhrer impressed on and off the field in 2017, and it would be a surprise if he is not retained.

Hodkinson, who turns 30 next season, will need to start the year strongly to convince the powers-that-be he still has something to offer.