Nathan Brown spent the first three years of his coaching tenure at the Knights wondering from week to week who he was going to pick in his 17-man squad.
He had debutants coming out his ears and found himself handing out jumpers to a host of players who really hadn’t earned the right to have their hand out for one.
But the squad transformation for 2019 has been so dramatic, only four players – Sione Mata’utia, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Danny Levi and Nathan Ross – remain from the 2015 NRL campaign.
Brown is now embarrassed for choice in several positions heading into his fourth year at the helm as anticipation and expectation grows over the next few months.
The forward pack, the club’s weakest link under Brown, is now arguably it’s strongest, thanks to the off-season recruitment of David Klemmer, Tim Glasby and James Gavet.
The influence of so many new senior players in the space of 18 months at training has lifted the intensity to the point where several of the younger players have taken up the challenge and are leading the way, knowing there will be pressure on for positions.
Much-maligned hooker Danny Levi, whose maturity and ability to be a team player has been questioned in the past, is among the players quietly getting pats on the back for his transformation.
The likes of Mata’utia and Mitch Barnett, who would have looked at the squad and realised their guaranteed spots in the 17 each week are no longer guaranteed, have responded by taking their training to a new level.
Privately, the coaching staff say the difference between this pre-season and even the 2018 pre-season is like chalk and cheese.
Time will obviously tell if the club’s dramatic transformation translates into a side capable of making a serious assault on the premiership next season.
At the very least, the signs are finally encouraging.
From all reports, Jacob Saifiti had been training the house down in the pre-season after returning from shoulder surgery before breaking his leg when he was knocked unconscious outside the Greenroof Hotel early Sunday morning.
Coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season that saw twin brother Daniel climb well above him in the pecking order and with the recruitment of quality props Klemmer, Glasby and Gavet, Saifiti knew he was under the pump and needed to respond.
Club insiders say he finally had his diet right and was down to 114 kgs, his lowest weight for a number of years and his attitude and effort at training was vastly better than it had been in previous seasons.
“The penny had dropped with him,” one source said.
But in a split second, it all came undone around 2.30 last Sunday morning, again highlighting that well-worn phrase that nothing good happens to NRL players after midnight.
Arrest a relief
Knights officials were always quietly confident Saifiti wasn’t the aggressor after hearing from witnesses when news broke of his alleged assault but there was still plenty of relief when the phone call came from police to say the young prop had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
We understand CCTV footage from a childcare centre just down the road from the Greenroof Hotel provided police with a clear view of the incident and led to an arrest.
Mitchell Pearce and David Klemmer were already good mates from their time together in NSW Blues Origin camp before the Kangaroos prop sought a release from the Bulldogs.
It’s common knowledge the Knights skipper took the time while he was holidaying in Bali to ring Klemmer a couple of times during the negotiation process to sing the praises of the club and the Newcastle lifestyle.
But they have well and truly cemented their friendship over the past week with Klemmer staying at Pearce’s Merewether home while his wife Chloe and their three boys were back in Sydney organising the move.
The family has bought a house at Valentine.
The Jack’s turning 40
It has been a staple for celebrity sports stars, politicians, movie and television stars and comedians who enjoy their golf.
But this year’s annual Jack Newton celebrity pro-am golf tournament at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley from December 17-19 shapes as being one of the special ones for Jack and his family.
The tournament will celebrate its 40th year with more than 100 celebrities and professionals teeing off in the week leading up to Christmas.
Rugby league Immortal Wally Lewis will be there again after missing just three of the 40 tournaments.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke has been a regular over the years and the tournament, now simply known as The Jack, has raised $6.3 million to aid research into diabetes and to nurture and develop talented young junior golfers in this country through Jack’s own junior foundation.
We are not reading too much into the fact experienced winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall is one of the few established Knights top-graders out of contract at the end of next season.
For a player who was in the top five best players for the club last season, it’s strange there has been no talk at all about a possible extension beyond 2019.
But Knights coach Nathan Brown showed his hand a few weeks back, knocking back a request from the Dragons for a player swap involving Kenny-Dowall and Kurt Mann.
He re-enforced that during the week when he said his winger was “a really important part of the team”.
Sold on Sale
He started the pre-season on a train and trial basis but giant young former Melbourne Storm winger Sale Finau has clearly impressed the Knights’ coaching staff over the past month.
So much so, the 105 kg Finau has been offered a contract and the club paid for him to have shoulder surgery earlier this week to repair an injury he picked up while taking part in a wrestling drill a few weeks back.
Don’t be surprised if the powerhouse 20-year-old earns himself a development contract before June 30 if he continues to impress when he gets back on the field after surgery.