DYLAN Lucas was the last man to wear Newcastle's No.12 jersey and while he has designs to don it next season he isn't taking for granted that it will be simply handed to him come round one.
Lucas, after debuting and playing seven NRL games last season, as well as finishing the year on the left edge after the now departed Lachlan Fitzgibbon missed the semi-final through injury, appears primed to be assume the position next year.
His chances of getting first crack in the back row alongside right-side veteran Tyson Frizell were only enhanced recently when English import Kai Pearce-Paul was booked for foot surgery.
Pearce-Paul, 22, is a year younger than Lucas but has played 61 top-flight games. He is also coming off a Super League premiership with Wigan. But the new recruit is expected to miss much of the pre-season and potentially the opening rounds.
Other potential challengers for the position include Jed Cartwright, who has joined the Knights from South Sydney, and versatile home-grown forwards Brodie Jones and Mat Croker.
"It's a very exciting year ahead for me, but at the moment it's making sure I'm doing everything right in the pre-season and just getting as many reps as I can there," Lucas told the Newcastle Herald. "I'm sure if I rip in, the rest will work out.
"I never want to get complacent. There's always boys coming through and that's the good thing at the club at the moment, there's a lot of healthy competition there, boys fighting for spots."
After a big pre-season last year, Lucas earned his NRL debut in round three last season against the Dolphins, one of three players to debut off the bench in the match.
He started three consecutive games in the back row mid-season and then played three of the club's last four, scoring two tries including in the New Zealand semi-final.
The Illawarra product was predominately an outside-back before he was steered towards second row ahead of the 2023 season and it's a positional switch he now considers permanent.
"This will be my first pre-season going into it where I know where I'll be playing, so it will be good to have that sole focus," he said.
"I did a few reps there last summer but was mainly at centre. Getting a few games there at the back end of the year definitely helped give me the confidence that I am more than capable of doing that role on the edge, and I'm starting to really enjoy that."
Lucas' goal is to be in the round-one side "and ideally start on the left edge", but he said "we've got the full pre-season ahead where I've got a lot of work to do".
The 23-year-old had a quiet off-season, returning home to Albion Park, but he has also been involved locally with the Clontarf Foundation, which helps Indigenous youth. "It's a good way for them to connect with culture," he said. "It's something I'm very passionate about, because I know what it was like when I was a kid, it's very exciting when you get footballers turn up to school."
A Wiradjuri man, Lucas has been in the ear of Indigenous All Stars and Knights NSW Cup coach Ronald Griffiths. "If I ever got the chance, I'd jump at it. I'd love to represent my culture," he said.