The Knights are coming off three wooden spoons in a row and for the loyal fans in the Hunter, things can only go up…and most pundits agree that in 2018 they will be a far better outfit. But the key issue is exactly how much better they will be this season.
Before their last trial match, optimism was riding high after a solid trial performance against the Storm (admittedly a Storm outfit missing some stars). But in their final trial match of the pre-season, the Knights were comprehensively beaten by an Eels outfit that absolutely monstered them in defence.
This has seen the market shy away from the Knights and they are paying even money in their opening match of the season against Manly. As discussed below on my player ratings, the Knights have a very decent squad to deal with. I think that early in the season, while the market still has the Knights as the NRL’s whipping boys, there will be money to be made.
When you come last, your stats are never pretty to look at. They were towards the bottom in nearly every key statistic and the fact that the scored 200 points less than they conceded shows just what a tough year it was.
While it is usually instructive to look at how a team ranked statistically in the previous season, that is not always the case and is certainly not when a team has recruited so much new talent over the off-season. In an off-season that featured more player movement that any other season in the past, it is the Knights that have totally transformed their squad more than any other team.
Since taking over the Knights during the pre-season before the 2016 season, Nathan Brown has totally transformed this squad.
The only players that will run out in Round 1, who had played first grade for the Knights before 2016, are Danny Levi and Nathan Ross, both of whom made their debuts late in the 2015 season. It has been a clean out unlike anything I have ever seen and although he let go of some real talent, he has built a well-rounded squad.
Ponga was of course one of Brown’s big signings for 2018 and how well the Knights go will be largely determined by how well this gifted kid can handle the challenges of being a starting NRL full back. While he is ridiculously talented, he is very lean and I can see him being bashed from pillar to post. But much like Billy Slater over a decade ago, I think his raw talent will see him ultimately succeed at the role.
With SKD and Ross on the wings, the Knights have two of the best finishers in the game. Where things get interesting is the centre pairing, which is likely to be Moga and Sione Mata’utai. Both players have a ton of talent, but neither of them have proven themselves to be terrific defensive centres. Both were exposed in the trial game against the Eels.
As for the forwards, Brown has ensured he has a lot of talent to choose from and this is always vital to bringing out the best in the squad. New recruits Herman Ese’ese, Aiden Guerra, Chris Heighnington, Jacob Lillyman and Slade Griffin would have provided the incumbent forward pack with plenty of competitive tension in the pre-season, and whoever Brown chooses to go with will know that they have a ton of talent breathing down their neck.
On last year’s form I am particularly keen on Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who is a terrific runner of the ball, and Mitch Barnett, whose aggression and workload is impressive.
The Knights have a pretty rough draw, but it could have been worse. For instance, although they face the Roosters, Storm, Sharks and Eels twice, one of their matches against the Roosters is before State of Origin and so they will likely face a weaker outfit.
They only play the Broncos and Cowboys once each and have eight Friday Night games, with no five-day turnarounds. That will ensure coach Brown can get his troops into a nice rhythm week in or week out.
It goes without saying that how the Knights will go is very hard to predict in 2018. However, I think they are more likely to over achieve than under achieve. The market has them coming about 12th, whereas I think they are far more likely to sneak into 8th than they are to get a 4th wooden spoon on the trot.
The main reason why I think the Knights are on the up is not just the strength of their recruitment drive over the past few years, but the improvement we saw under coach Brown in the second half of 2017.
Despite the unenviable record of picking up three wooden spoons in row, there is no doubt that Nathan Brown knows how to get the best out of his players and now that he has a talented squad to work with, I think we will see the Knights competitive in all their matches this year.
Furthermore, the Knights also have some of the best fans in the competition. They often pack out their home ground, even during the dark days of 2015-2017. So if they can string some wins together, I expect Marathon Stadium to again become one of the hardest places in the country to get a win at.
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