Can the Knights turn last season's drought-breaking finals appearance into a top 4 finish this season?
Given Penrith's transformation from also-ran in 2019 to minor premiers last season, anything is possible. The Knights' first target will be the top eight and anything less will be a disaster.
To make the top four, they are going to have to find a consistency of performance that hasn't been evident from this club since Michael Hagan was in charge. They have the forward pack to mix it with any rival side but do they have the backline depth to foot it with the heavyweights?
They are going to need their key players in the spine - Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, Blake Green and Jayden Brailey - to play the bulk of the games together to crack the top four. There won't be a spare seat at MJ Stadium during the finals if they do.
Can they realistically challenge for the title?
Adam O'Brienwould need to work some magic for that to happen. Every star would need to align. They would need an injury-free run and even then, there are three or four other sides in the competition with a greater winning culture who have far more experience in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of finals footy than the Knights. It should be a great ride this season but I'm not sure it will be that good.
What are the Knights' biggest strengths?
On the field, it's their matchwinners - Ponga, Bradman Best, Pearce and Green - and a forward pack which, on paper, is as good as any in the competition headed by three world-class props in David Klemmer and the Saifiti boys, one of the game's best up-and-coming hookers in Jayden Brailey, a Test back-rower in Tyson Frizell and an enforcer in Mitch Barnett. Off the field, it's the club's army of supporters who'll be champing at the bit this season after the virus ruined the season for many of them last year.
Where are they most vulnerable?
Between the ears. This side needs to rid itself of its mental demons and play at an elite level every week if it is to be respected as a premiership heavyweight and truly test the best in the competition when it matters. It's been said plenty of times over the past few years but there is just too big of a gap between their best and their worst. Adam O'Brien needs to find a way to bring those much closer together.
Can Mitchell Pearce return to his best and silence the critics?
The club will certainly be hoping so but only time will tell on this one. The Knights have re-signed him for an extra year until the end of the 2022 season which suggests they are hedging their bets a little, which is smart business given Pearce will turn 32 early next month and is coming into his 15th season in the NRL. He is also coming off a mentally taxing off-season of controversy surrounding his personal life. But one thing Pearce has shown throughout his career is that he is resilient and strong of character. There is also no denying his intense passion for the game, his competitiveness and the fact no one leads by example better on the training paddock. You can bet your life he'll leave absolutely nothing in the tank and with the right support around him, he can still be the man. What is clear is the Knights need him to deliver.
How big a signing is Tyson Frizell?
In their 34-year history, Newcastle have signed only a couple of established Tests stars from rival clubs. Frizell is the latest and he plays in a position where the Knights could well do with some more strike. His critics would argue his best form is behind him and his form with the Dragons had dipped over the past year or two. And at almost 30, there is not a lot of upside in signing him for the next three years. The reality, though, is that he was still one of the Dragons' best in a poorly performed side and the indications from pre-season training are that a new environment and fresh challenge have been just what the doctor ordered. And he'll be running off the likes of Pearce, Green and Ponga as the season progresses - what's not to like about that?
It's a big year for ... ?
Every player who is off contract and there are plenty of them - 11 at last count. The list includes Blake Green, Connor Watson, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Kurt Mann, Edrick Lee, Hymel Hunt, Josh King, Brodie Jones, Enari Tuala, Tex Hoy and Phoenix Crossland. Green is likely to retire and join the coaching staff, while Lee has already been told by the club they can't afford the Origin winger beyond this season. The others will come down to how they perform. If I was forced to highlight one, I'd say Watson. He is coming off a tough season injury-wise, only playing five games, and has been shifted into a new role in the forward pack at lock with Adam O'Brien hoping he can take advantage of the new attacking rules with his pace around the rucks. He signed a reduced one-year-deal towards the end of last season for this year to back himself so now he needs to deliver. Fitzgibbon's quest for a new contract has been impacted by the signing of Tyson Frizell but more so given he could miss the opening 8 to 10 rounds of the competition following shoulder surgery.
Who will be the rising star to watch?
The player who caught most of the attention during the pre-season was teenage outside back Dominic Young. At nearly two metres tall and 107kg, the English recruit is hard to miss. A couple of standout performances in trials against Cessnock and Melbourne has rocketed the young centre into the NRL frame a lot quicker than most expected. It will be when, not if, he debuts this season. The same goes for teenage utility Simi Sasagi, who's hardly played in two years but is highly rated. Watch out for the club's other English teenager, Bailey Hodgson, to explode on the scene when he recovers from knee surgery.
Who'll win the Danny Buderus Medal?
There'll be a host of worthy contenders but I'll go with hooker Jayden Brailey to edge out Daniel Saifiti, Bradman Best and a fast-finishing Kalyn Ponga in a tight one.
Who will win the wooden spoon?
The Dragons will need a massive improvement in their defence to avoid the dreaded spoon if their Charity Shield form is anything to go by. Where does Brisbane find their improvement under new coach Kevin Walters with the key positions of hooker and halfback still a problem for them and no Kotoni Staggs for half the season? Broncos back-to-back spoons has a nice ring to it.
Who wins the grand final?
It will be one of the heavyweights from last season and the two with the biggest upside improvement-wise are the Raiders and the Rabbitohs. Josh Hodgson will make a huge difference to the Raiders, who almost made the big one last year without their star hooker and best player for most of the season while similarly, a fit Latrell Mitchell can have the same influence for the Bunnies. Forced to pick one, I'll go with the Raiders.
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