JAKE Clifford appears set to be dropped for the second time in the space of six weeks, raising questions about his long-term future with the Newcastle Knights, after coach Adam O'Brien confirmed his interest in signing an experienced halfback.
Clifford, the former North Queensland Cowboys playmaker who linked with Newcastle in June last year, is under contract until the end of next season.
After playing in 21 consecutive games for the Knights, he endured a day he would prefer to forget in the 50-2 drubbing from Melbourne Storm in round eight and was given time off and then sent back to NSW Cup.
The 24-year-old was reinstated in the No.1 side four weeks later, but two games later he looks likely to pay the price after Newcastle's 42-6 loss to Penrith on Sunday.
Clifford has been named in the No.7 jersey for Sunday's clash with the Raiders in Canberra, but O'Brien has admitted that Adam Clune, who has missed two games with a knee injury, could leapfrog him into the starting line-up.
"I have a feeling that Adam is probably closer than where I named him on the team sheet ... if he trains well enough, I'd consider putting him straight in," O'Brien said.
"So I've probably got some conversations to have there."
The Knights agreed to release former captain Mitchell Pearce at the end of last season to join Catalans Dragons in Super League, and their subsequent interest in Tigers halfback Luke Brooks amounted to nothing.
They were eventually cleared to sign former Broncos five-eighth Anthony Milford, who has played in three straight games but made only minimal impact.
"We didn't replace our seven and - this is going to sound really excusey, but it's reality - our spine in particular, who are your connectors for your attack, which was really good in the first couple of rounds, are lacking some experience," O'Brien said.
Asked if he needed to sign a halfback, O'Brien replied: "I certainly think an experienced one with an amount of games would help.
"We bought Adam to come here to be the understudy to Mitchell. That was when he was originally signed.
"He's done a hell of a job at the start of the year, but unfortunately he's been injured as well. I'm expecting him to come back and perform as he has when we were all raving about what a signing he was. That won't change for him.
"But if you look at the teams that are consistently up around the top, they are really experienced and pump a lot of money in terms of salary cap into the spine.
"It's not just the seven. We lost [Jayden Brailey] as well, arguably one of the best hookers in the comp. We haven't had him, too.
"But I'm throwing way too many excuses here."
Meanwhile, O'Brien was confident skipper Kalyn Ponga would be cleared to tackle the Raiders after being knocked senseless attempting to tackle Penrith back-rower Viliame Kikau on Sunday.
"He'll go through the seven-day protocols ... but he seems fine and I expect him to play," O'Brien said.
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