The Newcastle Knights will be entering 2022 with the chance to play for their third straight finals appearance, a feat last achieved during the Andrew Johns era.
Somewhat over achieving in 2021, with injuries to key positions and lackluster offensive production indicating a return to pre Adam O’Brien form, the Knights instead continued to gain momentum under the development of some of their rising stars.
There’s still question marks about the Knights spine following the departure of long-time halfback Mitchell Pearce and injury to the starting hooker Jayden Brailey, but with the addition of Dane Gagai and Adam Clune, and Andrew Johns as a coaching consultant for 2022, the buzz in the Hunter will likely remain.
Their attack will need significant improvement as teams who finished below them improve, but a third straight trip to the finals isn’t off the cards.
Ins: Adam Clune (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2023), Dane Gagai (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 2024), Krystian Mapapalangi (2023), Leo Thompson (2023), Chris Vea'ila (2023)
Outs: Blake Green (retired), Josh King (Melbourne Storm), Mitchell Pearce (Catalan Dragons), Gehamat Shibasaki (Rugby union), Starford To'a (Wests Tigers), Connor Watson (Sydney Roosters)
Star player: Kalyn Ponga
This might seem obvious but the expectation for Ponga to produce on a consistent level is at an all-time high in 2022. While the Knights have now plugged in Adam Clune as the replacement for Mitchell Pearce in the halves, standing him alongside fellow half Jake Clifford, Ponga is still set to receive plenty of opportunities to create.
In just 15 games for the Knights in 2021, Ponga led the team in tackle breaks and ranked top five in offloads and line breaks.
Rising star: Phoenix Crossland
Crossland has slowly built up his resume with the Knights since making his first-grade debut with the club in 2019. Only featuring in nine games last year, the young half has apparently impressed coach Adam O’Brien immensely pre-season, with Crossland now tipped to play a utility role, replacing Connor Watson.
Crossland’s ability to play multiple attacking positions while also commanding the ruck with his playmaking will make him an invaluable asset for a team that boasts a pair of unproven halves.
Most under pressure: Jake Clifford
Jake Clifford, who’s only 24 years old, is set to experience expectation and pressure like never before, with the Knights essentially handing the keys over to him to run the ship after the departure of Mitchell Pearce.
Clifford was integral for the Knights in 2021, joining the team midway through the year after beginning the season with the Cowboys. He’s made significant strides in recent years, particularly in his kicking game and defence, but will need a big 2022.
Five matches to watch
Match 1: Round 1, vs Roosters, at Sydney Cricket Ground (Sat, Mar 12, 3:00pm)
Match 2: Round 12, vs Warriors, at Moreton Daily Stadium (Sat, May 28, 3:00pm)
Match 3: Round 17, vs Rabbitohs, at McDonald Jones Stadium (Fri, Jul 8, 7:55pm)
Match 4: Round 19, vs Roosters, at McDonald Jones Stadium (Fri, Jul 22, 7:55pm)
Match 5: Round 25, vs Sharks, at McDonald Jones Stadium (Sun, Sep 4, 2:00pm)
Coach Adam O’Brien will attempt to rally his troops again for a season where they defy the odds, as many are tipping the Knights to take a step back after the departure of too many critical playmakers.
Mitchell Pearce’s tenure was often defined by the club’s eternal development, where they would get a few good young players, but never enough to get them over the edge. Expect the Knights to be competitive, but the lack of experience in the halves and injury to Jayden Brailey doesn’t give confidence that they will improve on last season.
The Knights will finish outside the finals, and are a chance of slipping into the bottom four.