It could be the sense of anticipation and expectation that now surrounds the club after so many years of mediocrity.
Or it may just be the influence and drawing power of stars such as Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce and David Klemmer.
Or, most likely, a combination of both. Whatever the reasons behind it, interest in the Newcastle Knights is now at unprecedented levels, six weeks out from the start of the 2019 season.
As of yesterday morning, the club has 16,285 members, a record for this time of the year, more than 4000 ahead of where the Knights were at the corresponding period in 2018.
A year after winning their thrid consecutive wooden spoon, Newcastle finished last season with a record 18,017 members. A remarkable achievement under the circumstances.
But that is likely to be smashed this year with suggestions that figure could be surpassed even before the Knights run out for their premiership opener against the Cronulla Sharks at McDonald Jones Stadium on March 15.
Knights CEO Phil Gardner predicted when Wests Group first took over ownership of the club that marketed right and with a playing roster the city could be proud of, a membership base exceeding 20,000 was not beyond the realms of possibility.
That now appears well within reach as early as this season, particularly if Nathan Brown’s team can hit the ground running and chalk up a few early wins.
He can do just anything on a football field but the one area of Kalyn Ponga’s game that has been well short of elite level standard could potentially be the Knights’ Achilles heel in 2019.
Ponga kicked 27 goals last season at less than 70 percent success rate. He sacked himself as goal-kicker at one stage and handed the job over to winger Ken Sio after a wayward day in Tamworth with the boot against the Wests Tigers played havoc with his confidence.
But with Sio gone, Ponga won’t have the luxury of passing the buck this season with no other recognised kickers in the squad outside of back-up playmaker Mason Lino, who won’t be in the 17 unless there is an injury.
Given how close the NRL is and how many games finish with only a few points the difference between a win and a loss, goal-kicking percentages have probably never been more vital.
It must be said that no-one seems too worried about it in the Knights camp, least of all Ponga, who is happy to be landed with the added responsibility and pressure.
Plenty of practice between now and March 15 will no doubt be on the cards.
Eight weeks after breaking his leg during an alleged assault outside a Hamilton hotel, Jacob Saifiti was running for the first time yesterday as Knights teammates took part in an intra-club opposed session at Wyong following a week-long camp on the Central Coast.
Saifiti, currently in the process of buying his first house in Newcastle, was fined $50,000 [half suspended] by the Knights following his involvement in the hotel incident that resulted in Central Newcastle forward Dane Cordner fronting court on Thursday and pleading not guilty to an assault charge.
It seems boom young former Melbourne Storm winger Sale Finau may have run out of chances.
The powerhouse, 105 kg Finau 20, who was cut loose by the Storm at the end of last season, was given a train and trial opportunity by the Knights before Christmas and showed plenty of potential on the training paddock, enough to earn a one year contract and have a shoulder operation paid for.
But it’s come to nothing with Finau shown the door by the club earlier this week with his lack of desire to play said to be one of the reasons.
Knights fans will be able to get up close and personal with their favourite players, take part in mock press conferences and tour the club’s dressingroom facilities at the Knights’ Community season launch next Saturday from 9 am to midday at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Moga return delayed
Knights centre Tautau Moga will miss the club’s two pre-season trials against St George Illawarra and Cronulla and won’t be in the 17 for the premiership opener against the Sharks on March 15 at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Despite a favourable prognosis from his specialist this week about his rehabilitation from a fourth knee reconstruction, Moga’s return won’t be rushed by the club.
The plan will be to give the former Brisbane Broncos centre a 30 minute stint in NSW Cup on the same weekend the Knights kick off their NRL campaign, provided he ticks all the boxes over the next six weeks of training.
He is expected to start training with the rest of the squad over the next week or two and begin some contact work.
“We are not going to rush him,” Knights coach Nathan Brown said.
“The news from the specialist was good, Tau’s progressing well but he won’t play the trial matches and we’ll ease him back in after that.”
The news on Moga opens the door for former South Sydney centre Hymel Hunt to make his top-grade Knights debut against the Sharks in round 1 and play in the early rounds.
Moga is due in court on March 21 on an assault charge, a couple of days before the Knights are due to face Penrith in Newcastle in round 2.
Wests Group and Knights boss Phil Gardner has dispelled any suggestion progress on Newcastle’s Centre of Excellence is being held up because there is a State Election just around the corner.
The State Government and Wests are tipping $10 million each into stage one of the project, which includes new training fields and a high tech facility adjacent to the southern end of McDonald Jones Stadium.
Gardner said there will be no issue even if there is a change of government, revealing work may kick-off by the middle of next month.
“I’m hopeful we’ll have the bulldozers starting work on the fields within six weeks with an announcement before then,” he said.
“Solving a lot of the technical issues with the entire project is something we’ve been working very hard on but we are very close.”