Lock it in Eddie!
We are still six weeks away from the NRL kick-off but barring an injury mishap in that time, we're tipping Connor Watson to be the bolter in the Knights' starting side for their season opener against the Bulldogs.
And he'll be wearing the number 13 jersey.
Watson himself flagged his potential move from bench utility to lock early in the pre-season when he revealed he and coach Adam O'Brien had spoken about a possible role change this season to take advantage of the new attacking rules.
Not much has been said about it since with Watson back running but yet to start full contact training with the bulk of the squad as he enters the final stages of his recovery from last season's Achilles tendon rupture.
But we're hearing Watson's move is definitely a goer and it will likely come at the expense of backrower Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
He's been a permanent fixture on the left edge in recent years but provided he is completely over his off-season groin surgery, Fitzgibbon looks like having to settle for a bench spot against the Dogs with Mitch Barnett and Tyson Frizell to be the starting backrowers.
So what will the rest of the squad look like?
The Knights are refusing to put a date on the return of either Kalyn Ponga or Blake Green from off-season surgeries, largely because they don't exactly know and don't want to put pressure on the players with a deadline.
But we understand Ponga could miss the opening month while Green is optimistically looking at round 2 or 3 for his return. Tex Hoy will deputise for Ponga with Kurt Mann to start the season again at five-eighth.
The only other real contentious spot in the starting side for round one is right centre. Bradman Best and Edrick Lee are certainties to combine on the left, leaving Hymel Hunt, Starford To'a, Enari Tuala and Gehamat Shibasaki fighting it out for the two outside back spots on the right.
Tuala was the club's leading try-scorer last season and was consistently good until he had two shockers to finish the season. He's put on some beef and has been flying at training. Hunt was in the Maroons' extended squad after a solid 2020 at right wing. But if those two get the nod again, that leaves the highly talented To'a missing out.
Not surprisingly, the competition has been intense at training and who gets the spots may all come down to who wins that battle and who performs best in the Storm trial next month.
My round 1 squad is:
Hoy, Lee, Best, Tuala, Hunt, Mann, Mitchell Pearce, David Klemmer, Jayden Brailey, Daniel Saifiti, Frizell, Barnett, Watson. Bench: Jacob Saifiti, Fitzgibbon, Jesse Sue, Josh King/ Pasami Saulo.
FIRED UP KLEM
Rejection is never an easy pill to swallow for anyone.
Big David Klemmer has probably been feeling that more than most over the past few months.
He put on a brave face publicly late last year but you can bet your life it cut really deep when he was snubbed by NSW Origin coach Brad Fittler and left out of the series against Queensland.
The 19-Test Kangaroos prop wasn't even considered good enough to make Fittler's extended 28-man squad despite another strong season for the Knights.
More recently, Klemmer wouldn't be human if he didn't feel at least a little browned off by missing out on a place in the Knights leadership group, particularly when he was widely being talked up in the public arena as a likely captaincy successor to Mitchell Pearce.
Knights coach Adam O'Brien, probably sensing it could have been an issue, sat down with Klemmer to explain the process and the reasons why he wasn't one of the five chosen.
He was told there are other leadership areas he will be involved in and his role on the field won't change.
Klemmer, who has just become a new father for the fourth time, seems cool with that. But who really knows if he is stewing about it inside.
If he is, maybe having a bit of pent up anger coursing through his veins come round one against his old club the Bulldogs won't be a bad thing.
The younger Klemmer of four or five years ago was all fire-and-brimstone. The older, more mature and responsible Klemmer - not so much.
Knights fans won't mind a bit if a highly motivated and angrier Klemmer emerges this season. Presumably, neither will his coach.
PEARCE'S $250,000 CUT
Mitchell Pearce has been on close to $1 million a season over the past four years at the Knights but it's tipped he will have to take a pay cut of around $250,000 in 2022 if he is to stay for a fifth year.
The Knights are gambling on a rival club not coming at Pearce with a more lucrative, longer-term deal. But if they do and he opts to leave, Cowboys playmaker Jake Clifford is the insurance. His signing for 2022-23 would suddenly become more crucial.
Down the track, it could be Clifford and a more mature Kalyn Ponga playing in the halves with young English prospect Bailey Hodgson at fullback. But having Pearce in the No 7 jersey for at least another 12 months after this season remains the priority.
Intriguingly, Knights coach Adam O'Brien will potentially have as many as nine of his 17-man squad who will take the field against the Bulldogs in round one in March coming off contract at the end of the season.
That's a big chunk of his top team which means the coach has the luxury of reshaping his roster for 2022 in a big way if those players fail to fire this season.
Former league stars Mark Sargent, Noel Cleal and Clint Newton will be the guests of honour at a Port Stephens Men of League function at Soldiers Point Bowling Club on Friday, February 19. Retired ABC commentator Gerry Collins will MC the lunch.
It's $40 a head for a barbecue lunch, two schooners and $10 in raffle tickets. Phone 49827173 for tickets. It will be a great afternoon with tickets already selling fast.
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