They made the finals last season, but the Knights have lost their mojo. After Friday night's 36-18 loss to Wests Tigers, they need a dramatic form reversal if they hope to reach the play-offs. Herald experts BARRY TOOHEY and ROBERT DILLON ponder what is going wrong.
Q: Are the Knights under-achieving, or are they just over-hyped?
BARRY TOOHEY: I think it's both. Two wins from their past eight games with a so-called soft draw is clearly not good enough. But there is a reason many critics had the Knights missing the top eight at the start of the season. A lack of depth is clearly an issue.
ROBERT DILLON: I definitely think they've been under-achieving, not just this season but the previous two, as well. There are enough quality players in that squad to be pushing for a finals berth at the pointy end of the top eight.
Q: They've been hard hit by injuries. Has that been the main problem?
BT: It's been one of them. That and the team's overall lack of resolve and fight. Mitchell Pearce didn't miss a game last year and Kalyn Ponga missed just two. Together this season, they have already missed 11. Edrick Lee and Hymel Hunt have been big "outs". Injuries and a lack of depth eat into your ability to make players accountable each week.
RD: Take your three main playmakers out of any team and they are likely to struggle. Then again, the Roosters came to Newcastle a few weeks ago minus Keary, Friend, Cordner and Tedesco and won 38-4. Good teams cope with injuries.
Q: What deficiencies in their game are the most worrying?
BT: Their attack, for the most part, has been pedestrian but the biggest deficiency continues to be between the ears. Attitude, effort, desire, hunger - they should be a given every week from everyone who pulls on the jersey but right now, nobody has a clue from week to week whether the players will turn up or not.
RD: Their edge defence has been embarrassingly soft. They've conceded 256 points, almost 100 more than at the corresponding point last year. At times their attack has appeared clueless. Only the Broncos and Bulldogs have scored fewer points.
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Q: Coach Adam O'Brien suggested after Friday's loss to the Tigers that Newcastle's issues are "ingrained" after many years of failure. Is that a fair call?
BT: I think it's spot-on and clearly not an easy fix. Wayne Bennett bowed out with the parting shot, "I don't have the time to fix this", referring to the club's culture. Newcastle's a great place to live, fans continue to rock up to games in their droves no matter what the results, the players are revered around town, everyone is nice and comfortable - probably too comfortable.
RD: I think it raises questions about the club's former management. They virtually wrote off two seasons to free up salary-cap space for then coach Nathan Brown. The club won six of 48 games in 2016 and 2017. What impact does that have on a young player's psyche?
Q: Will O'Brien's position be under any threat if results don't improve?
BT: Not in the short term. He's got three years after this and while contracts don't mean anything these days, it's pretty clear Phil Gardner and the Wests Group think he has the right attributes as a coach to drag the club out of the doldrums and back to being a force again. But at the end of the day, it's a results-driven game.
RD: If this season fizzles out and they miss the finals, anything is possible. Mind you, the last thing the Knights need is to punt another coach.
Q:Why did the club extend O'Brien's deal before the season kicked off when he was already contracted until the end of next year?
BT: It was a big show of faith and reward after he ended the club's finals' drought in his first year and also a reaction to the rumblings from Melbourne that he could be in the frame down south to take over from Craig Bellamy.
The bottom line though is there is a genuine feeling he is the right man to fix the issues at the club.
RD: They obviously have a lot of faith in him. In saying that, they also had a lot of faith in Nathan Brown until it all went pear-shaped.
Q: Is there still time for them to turn it around or is this season already a write-off?
BT: We are not even at the halfway point so there is clearly still time, but it's running out quickly.
RD:If they can't beat the Cowboys this week, they'll be in a very deep hole. But the table is so tight that I doubt the top eight will be decided until the final round.
Q: Has the off-season captaincy drama involving Mitchell Pearce had any impact?
BT: None at all. Pearce's injury - now that's a different story. There's no doubt his absence has impacted on the confidence of the entire squad.
RD: I doubt it. Pearce copped it sweet and they all moved on.
Q: Blake Green was touted as the likely replacement captain. Is that still realistic?
BT: He would have been captain had he started the season. But it's not even a consideration now with Green struggling big time coming back from a knee reconstruction and a cracked rib. Making him captain won't change anything.
RD: I thought he was a surprise choice, given he'd only played three games for the club. I'd have made David Klemmer captain, but the coach knows his players better than anyone.
Q: On paper, the Knights have one of the best packs in the NRL. Why aren't they more dominant?
BT: I don't think the new, faster game suits them overall because they lack the athleticism of some of the other forward packs with smaller, more mobile, dynamic ball-runners. A bit more fire and brimstone and intent with and without the footy would help.
Their attack, for the most part, has been pedestrian but the biggest deficiency continues to be between the ears ... right now, nobody has a clue from week to week whether the players will turn up or not.BARRY TOOHEY
RD: Someone should show them a few videos of the Newcastle's formative years, when every home game was a demolition derby. They need a bit of that "mongrel" the Knights of old showed.
Q:Mark Geyer said on radio on the weekend that David Klemmer "doesn't scare anyone anymore". Is Klem still one of the NRL's top props?
BT: NSW coach Brad Fittler doesn't think so and the older and more mature Klem has become, the less angry he is and you could definitely argue that's been to the detriment of his game overall. His greatest asset now is his big engine but the speed of the game doesn't suit the way he plays. In saying that, he's been strong in the past two games.
RD: I'd rather have a 19-Test front-rower playing with me than against me. He's scary enough just interviewing him!
Q: Do the Knights rely too heavily on Kalyn Ponga?
BT: Definitely, particularly without Mitchell Pearce. It makes defending against the Knights so much easier when you can, mostly, concentrate on one player.
RD: Obviously, but most teams rely heavily on their highest-paid player.
Q: Is the get-out clause in Ponga's contract (at the end of 2022) a concern?
BT: It will be if the team doesn't improve. Ponga is earning over $1 million a season here so I can't see money being a real factor. What could be a factor though is if he starts doubting the club can at least compete with the heavyweights.
RD: If they don't make the finals this season, he might well feel inclined to see what other offers are out there.
Q: Which players have been the best of a bad bunch this season?
BT: Ponga, Jayden Brailey, Tyson Frizell and Daniel Saifiti (his opening five weeks) have consistently been among the best, along with Mitch Barnett and Connor Watson. Bradman Best has had a couple of strong games but hasn't seen enough of the footy.
RD: Ponga has won a couple of games with individual genius, but I've been really impressed with Jayden Brailey. He's top class. Daniel Saifiti and Mitch Barnett have had their moments.
Q: If you were selecting the team this week, what changes would you make?
BT: I highly doubt Kalyn Ponga will be fit, but I reckon Blake Green will be back so I'd slot him in at five-eighth alongside Phoenix Crossland and shift Kurt Mann to fullback. I'd also seriously look at giving Simi Sasagi his debut in the centres at the expense of Enari Tuala. Brayden Musgrove will replace injured Hymel Hunt on the wing. I'd also be tempted to start Brodie Jones in the back row ahead of Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
RD: I've always wondered why Daniel and Jacob Saifiti don't start games together. Two huge guys to put them on the front foot. And I reckon it might be worth picking versatile Connor Watson at right-side centre for Tuala.
Q: Will they make the finals this year?
BT: Not on current form they won't. But get Pearce, Ponga, Lee and Hunt back and injury-free for the back end of the season and they could still get on a run and sneak into seventh or eighth place if they have a real crack and find some confidence and consistency.
RD: I reckon they're a 50-50 bet. The next two games will be crucial.
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