THE Newcastle Knights are bracing for opponents to continue targeting a backline that requires an immediate reshuffle after Tautau Moga’s season-ending injury.
Moga, a key off-season signing from Brisbane, is facing his fourth knee reconstruction after rupturing his anterior-cruciate ligament in Sunday’s 30-12 loss to St George Illawarra at WIN Stadium.
Moga’s cruel setback highlights the limited options Knights coach Nathan Brown has at his disposal in the outside-backs department.
The 24-year-old Samoan international was the only threequarter with NRL experience that Newcastle recruited at the end of last season.
Yet the club parted company with a host of proven performers, including their 2017 first-choice centres Dane Gagai (South Sydney) and Peter Mata’utia (Leigh Centurions).
In addition, fringe first-graders Brendan Elliot (Gold Coast), Joe Wardle (Castleford), Chanel Mata’utia (Cessnock) and Jacob Gagan (Souths) were all released.
The upshot is that, four games into the season, Brown is likely to recall winger Ken Sio for Saturday’s clash with Brisbane at McDonald Jones Stadium, largely because there is no viable alternative.
As well as Moga, Brown said injuries to five-eighth Connor Watson (shoulder), NSW Cup fullback Nick Meaney (ankle) and the sacking of utility back Dylan Phythian after a drugs offence “certainly leaves us a little vulnerable”.
“It’s fair to say we probably don't have too many options at this stage,” Brown added.
The only other outside backs with NRL experience in Newcastle’s squad are Pat Mata’utia and Cory Denniss, both of whom debuted in 2016 but were not required last year.
“It’s an area where we were skinny coming into the year,” Brown said after Sunday’s game.
“We won’t lie about that … from the club’s point of view, we’ve been looking out there for outside backs, quite regularly.”
Newcastle recently signed outstanding Cronulla prospect Jesse Ramien, but his two-season contract does not start until 2019.
Their prospects of expediting his arrival would appear slim, given that the former Junior Kangaroos representative has played the past two games in Cronulla’s top side.
Brown remains hopeful that Newcastle might be able to bolster their ranks before the June 30 transfer deadline.
“People know we’re looking, and at some stage there’s always unhappy players at clubs when they’re not getting to play,” he said. “You never know what might fall out these days, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Adding to Brown’s dilemma, Newcastle’s right-side centre, Sione Mata’utia, has been found wanting in defence in the past two weeks, missing crucial one-on-one tackles on Sydney Roosters’ Latrell Mitchell and St George Illawarra’s Euan Aitken.
Brown will consider the option of switching Mata’utia to the left edge to replace Moga, which would mean Shaun Kenny-Dowall moving infield from the wing to partner the incoming Sio.
Alternatively, Brown could move Nathan Ross from left wing to centre and retain the pairing of Kenny-Dowall and Mata’utia.
“I’ll have to sleep on what we do from here,” he said. “Whether we go with Rossy or SKD in the centres, I'm not sure yet.”
Mata’utia said returning to centre after playing the past two seasons in the back row had taken “a little bit” of adjustment, defensively.
“I think it’s the combination and I’ve got to keep finding my feet in the centre position,” he said.
“At times it’s difficult, and at times it isn’t.
“It’s just the inconsistency in my defence that I’ve got to fix, which I’m working hard at trying to fix.”
Kenny-Dowall, a veteran of 234 NRL games and 21 Tests for the Kiwis, admitted “we’ve still got some areas that we need to fix up on that right side in defence”.
“I think the Dragons probably ran us ragged out there, and that’s one area that we need to improve on this week,” he said.
“We’re still probably getting to know each other’s game, the way we defend, and probably a bit of attitude as well.
“The boys need to learn how to grind out tough periods ... because in the NRL, teams will expose you if you have one play off.”
Asked if rival teams would focus on targeting Newcastle’s right edge, Kenny-Dowall replied candidly: “Yeah, I think they probably will.
“They’d be silly not to. If we’re letting tries in, of course they’re going to go where we’re most weak.
“It’s definitely an area we have to clean up.”
All 10 of Kenny-Dowall’s games for Newcastle have been on the wing, but he had no qualms about possibly moving to centre, where he played extensively for the Roosters and New Zealand.
“I’m very happy [to do it],” he said. “That will be up to Browny, and I’m pretty sure all the boys will be happy to move around, wherever the coach wants, and whatever is best for the team.”
Kenny-Dowall said Saturday’s home clash with Brisbane was “going to be a mental test more than anything this week for the boys” after back-to-back losses.
Meanwhile, Knights co-captain Jamie Buhrer will escape with a fine of either $1100 or $1500 after being charged with a grade-one careless high tackle on Aitken.