THE Newcastle Knights fly out on Saturday for their first game north of the border this season with a squad that includes a club-record contingent of Queenslanders.
No fewer than nine of Newcastle's 17-man line-up for the clash with North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville spent their formative years in the Sunshine State and qualify to represent the Maroons at Origin level.
Centres Gehamat Shibasaki and Enari Tuala and veteran forward Aidan Guerra are all returning to their home town, having grown up in Townsville.
Fullback Kalyn Ponga (Mackay and Brisbane), wingers Hymel Hunt (Deception Bay) and Edrick Lee (Brisbane), five-eighth Kurt Mann (Winton), lock Tim Glasby (Rockhampton), and hooker Andrew McCullough (Dalby) all hail from Queensland as well.
Centre Tautau Moga (Ipswich), who will be on standby in jersey No.19, is also a Banana Bender.
Remarkably, skipper Mitchell Pearce is the only member of Newcastle's backline who is a non-Queenslander.
Queenslanders outnumber New South Welshmen nine-to-seven in Newcastle's squad, with one Kiwi, bench forward Herman Ese'ese.
In most seasons since the Knights' inception in 1988, two or three Queenslanders would have been considered about average.
That increased last year when Glasby, Hunt, Mann and Lee joined Guerra, Ponga and Moga, and this season Tuala, Shibasaki and McCullough were recruited.
In addition, head coach Adam O'Brien and assistants David Furner and Rory Kostjacyn - all born and bred in NSW - spent several years plying their trade in the tropical north.
"There are a few guys who are looking forward to going up to Townsville," O'Brien said. "It's not all doom and gloom, the travel."
The "Maroon Nine" can help the Knights climb to the top of the table if they win on Saturday, and they will stay there for at least a week if Canberra also beat Parramatta in the game that kicks off at 7.35pm.
'The ladder will take care of itself," O'Brien said.
"If we start looking too far ahead, we're going to miss what's important right now.
"But they're human beings.
"I'm sure they're looking at the ladder and are quite happy with themselves being up there. But the challenge now is to stay there."