Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown is adamant discarded prop Herman Ese'ese will play a big part in whatever success the club enjoys this season despite leaving him out of his squad for Friday night's season opener against Cronulla at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Brown could not find a spot for the Kiwi Test prop or former co-captain Jamie Buhrer in his 17-man line-up with seven new recruits to make their Knights' NRL debuts against the Sharks.
Heading that list are props David Klemmer, Tim Glasby and James Gavet while centres Jesse Ramien and Hymel Hunt, winger Edrick Lee and utility Kurt Mann will all be playing their first top grade game for Newcastle.
Ex-Souths outside back Hunt will start at left centre outside Kalyn Ponga and Lachlan Fitzgibbon despite not having played in either of the club's pre-season trials against St George Illawarra or the Sharks because of a hamstring strain.
He gets the nod after a highly impressive pre-season at his new club but his selection has been aided by the fact strike centre Tautau Moga will be eased back from a fourth knee reconstruction through NSW Cup over the next few weeks.
Sione Mata'utia, who played almost exclusively in the centres last season and featured at left centre in both trials, returns to the backrow on the right edge outside Mitchell Pearce with Mitch Barnett to come off the bench.
Brown admitted he agonised for some time before finally making the decision to leave Ese'ese out of his top 17.
"It's definitely the toughest selection call I've had to make as coach since I've been at the Knights," Brown said.
"Herman only missed one game for us last year and he is a player who is still going to make a big contribution to any success this club has this season. I don't have any doubt about that."
It's understood Brown consulted heavily with his coaching staff before making the tough call.
"We looked at everything, the balance of the squad, trial form and in the end, someone had to miss out and Herman was the unfortunate one," he said.
The Newcastle Herald last week nominated Ese'ese as the player in the firing line after a couple of his defensive lapses proved costly in the Knights' 30-6 loss to the Sharks at Maitland.
It's understood veteran Aidan Guerra, who was one of the Knights best performers in 2018, won a bench spot ahead of Ese'ese on the strength of his more reliable defensive game.
But there are question marks over whether Guerra can have the sort of influence and impact off the bench alongside Daniel Saifiti in attack that Ese'ese brings with his strong running and footwork at the line.
While he lost his starting spot to Mata'utia, Barnett was a strong performer in the trials and offers versatility with his ability to play in the middle or on an edge.
The Sharks, meanwhile, have named rookies Briton Nikora and Blayke Brailey in their squad to meet the Knights with Nikora to start in the backrow while hooker Brailey will come off the bench to deputise for older brother Jayden.
High profile recruit Shaun Johnson will partner Chad Townsend in the halves with Matt Moylan at fullback.
The Knights are understood to be tracking towards a crowd of around 25,000 for the game although the club refused to divulge actual tickets sales when contacted yesterday.