What can fans realistically expect from the Knights in 2018?
ROBERT DILLON: Supporters are entitled to expect considerable progress this season, just as Newcastle improved from the disaster of 2016 to a reach a level of competitiveness last year. They should feel confident that, week in, week out, their team are in with a chance. Knights coach Nathan Brown has assembled a squad capable of winning games, the only question is if they can do so consistently.
BARRY TOOHEY: A team that, as usual, has a real dig but is a far more competitive side with greater depth, who should be showing the early signs of potentially developing into an NRL powerhouse again down the track. The players have been talking up a more attacking brand of footy as well, so let’s hope we see plenty of tries.
2. Are they capable of reaching the finals?
RD: They should at least be aiming to. Whether they get there is another matter altogether. There are probably about six or seven teams who appear virtually guaranteed to finish in the top eight. Good judges are saying the play-offs will be a bridge too far but I wouldn’t rule them out. It will probably depend on how they handle a tough schedule of six away games in the first eight rounds. If they come through that in reasonable shape, they could finish the season with a wet sail.
BT: The NRL always throws up a finals bolter or two but to make the play-offs after three straight wooden spoons would be a massive achievement, even allowing for the recruitment of some quality players. Nathan Brown would win coach of the year and probably get handed the key to the city if it happens.
To make the play-offs after three straight wooden spoons would be a massive achievement.
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3. Is there any danger they could finish with their fourth consecutive wooden spoon?
RD: That would be a disaster. I can’t imagine it happening, but if they suffer a crippling injury toll, it’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. If that worst-case scenario was to unfold, it is hard to imagine coach Brown remaining at the helm.
BT: Someone has to run last and at this time of the year, no-one thinks they are going to. A fourth wooden spoon would be a disaster. Browny would be run out of town. Would be happy for the Warriors to take it off our hands, thanks.
4. If the Knights don't finish last, who will?
RD: Wests Tigers and Gold Coast would appear the favourites, although the Warriors are proven, long-term underachievers. I also wouldn’t be surprised if South Sydney are in the mix. The Rabbitohs have a new coach and have been on the slide since their 2014 premiership win. The Tigers would be my tip.
BT: For fellow Novocastrian Garth Brennan's sake, I hope it's not the Titans although they do look a little vulnerable. Plenty of people are tipping the Warriors to come last and they do have a great track record of not having a real crack and letting their fans down horribly, so I’ll go with them.
5. What will be Newcastle's greatest challenge this season?
RD: Not only do the Knights play six of their first eight games on the road – a schedule that would test any team – this is likely to be during a period when they are still developing cohesion. The best teams usually feature settled line-ups who can cope with pressure. There seems little doubt Newcastle will improve the longer their new-look squad plays together. The concern is that they might fall behind early in the season and be left playing catch-up.
BT: I’m with Dillo on this one. Hitting the ground running with so many new players and combinations and a really tough, early-season draw is going to be a massive challenge. Six of the Knights’ first eight games are away from home, which makes Manly first-up so important. Getting some early confidence is paramount.
6. Which areas of Newcastle's squad appear vulnerable?
RD: Brown has already stated that he would have liked to sign another quality outside back. If Sione Mata’utia or Tautau Moga were to suffer an injury, Shaun Kenny-Dowall or Nathan Ross could move in from the wing, and Ken Sio is an experienced player waiting in reserve. But other than that, Brown will have to rely on youngsters to fill any gaps. The Knights appear to have reasonable depth in most other areas. They will start the year with proven players like Danny Levi, Jacob Saifiti and Josh King in their reserve-grade squad, so the pressure is on Brown’s first-choice forwards to justify their selections.
BT: The areas where they are still trying to recruit - the front row and in the centres. A couple of injuries in the outside backs and Browny will be scratching around for replacements. A big, strong aggressive prop with good leg speed and a bit of good-old fashioned fire would be real handy.
7. Who will be Newcastle's player of the season?
RD: Mitchell Pearce deserves to start as short-priced favourite. He is one of the best three or four halves in the game, and his form this year will have a massive bearing on whether Newcastle live up to the pre-season hype. But my money would be on Kalyn Ponga. The former North Queensland fullback didn’t have many opportunities in the trial against Parramatta, but everything he did had a touch of class about it.
BT: If it's Mitchell Pearce, there is a fair chance the Knights will have had a good season. He would be the favourite with the bookies but he is an easy pick. I'll nominate the bloke I think will go from promising to outstanding this year with a starting role and more minutes under his belt - big Herman Ese'ese.
8. What are the Knights' chances of re-signing Brock Lamb?
RD: If Brock Lamb can hold down a spot in Newcastle’s top 17 for the first half of the season, he’d be mad to leave. If he gets dropped to NSW Cup, he’d be mad not to explore his options.
BT: Picking him in round one won't hurt, even if it is only on the bench. Brock is a real long-term talent who the club simply can't afford to lose now that Jack Cogger is going. Pretty simple. Make sure he doesn’t leave.
9. Who will be Newcastle's starting hooker come the end of the season?
RD: Slade Griffin will start the year as No.9, and judging by the trial against Parramatta, his defence is top-class. But Danny Levi is a special talent and I’ll be surprised if he’s not recalled to the top squad promptly.
BT: The players have raved about Slade Griffin during the pre-season but there can’t have been a struck match between he and Danny Levi for the job in round one. For mine, Levi offers more in attack and when the side finds its feet, his greater weaponry out of dummy-half might see him get the nod.
10. Who will the Knights play in the grand final?
RD: The Roosters and Cowboys have outstanding rosters and will surely take some stopping. But I was really impressed with Parramatta in the trial at Maitland. They’re in a premiership window, and if Jarryd Hayne can regain his magic, they’re genuine contenders.
BT: After beating Melbourne in the preliminary final, the Knights won't care who they meet in the decider but I reckon it will be either the Cowboys or the Eels.
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