The Knights are in disarray.
After making the finals the last two seasons they are faced with the possibility of collecting the wooden spoon in 2022.
What’s more, they are facing division within the club after David Klemmer was shown a show cause notice due to a run in with a trainer. It was then reported that Klemmer’s contract could be torn up.
It has left coach Adam O’Brien under serious threat. The Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield this week suggested O’Brien had six to eight games next season to try and turn things around and save his job.
He needs to start with the roster.
The Knights are in desperate need of a halfback to fix an unbalanced top 30 and ignite their woeful attack after they failed to replace their most important player in Mitchell Pearce.
If reports the Tigers are keen to extend Luke Brooks beyond are true, the Knights would be left without a top line halfback for a third straight season.
The successful clubs in the NRL build a spine from the halfback as a starting point and then fill in the rest of the roster around the No.7, No.6, No.9 and No.1.
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The Knights have identified their long-term fullback in Kalyn Ponga, who has signed a long-term deal through until 2027 and he can also cover five-eighth if the club had another option for No.1 down the line.
Jayden Brailey, who has captained the side and is in the leadership group is the club’s long-term hooker after signing until 2025.
Five-eighth and halfback is where it gets a little murky. Jake Clifford, who is signed until 2023, was brought to the club as a five-eighth and was playing some decent football alongside Pearce in his preferred position at No.6.
However, Clifford has been shuffled between five-eighth and halfback this season and his form has fallen off a cliff, to the point he has been languishing in reserve grade.
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Halfback Adam Clune is signed until 2023 as well, but given what he has produced at the Dragons and Knights so far in his career he is a handy back-up at best.
Anthony Milford is the side’s chief playmaker at the moment, which takes away from his strengths as a running half, but he is bound for the Dolphins at the end of the season anyway, so he won’t help the Knights next year.
Pearce was the glue that held the Knights team together. His kicking game allowed Ponga to focus on his own game and he combined well with his edge ball-runners in attack and was strong defensively, both individually and as a leader of the defensive line.
Since Pearce left the Knights have been a rabble in both attack and defence. They are the worst side in the NRL in terms of defence and given what they dished up against the Bulldogs in Round 20, their attack is not much better.
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Put simply, it it hinges on Brooks.
Braith Anasta believes the Knights are destined for some lean years if they miss out on luring the 27-year-old away from the Tigers.
“If he (Luke Brooks) stays Newcastle are in some big trouble, who’ve they got in the halves,” Anasta asked on NRL 360.
Phil Rothfield believes the Knights could switch Ponga to five-eighth and bring in a new fullback, but that wouldn’t solve the main problem, which is the side’s lack of a class No.7.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be any easier if you can’t find a good halfback, you find a really good fullback and move Ponga to five-eighth, but Kalyn’s sort of settled in at fullback hasn’t he?” Phil Rothfield said.
Paul Kent, meanwhile, believes Ponga has let it be known that he wants to be the fullback long-term and blasted the club’s lack of imagination and creativity in attack.
“He’s an established fullback,” Kent said.
“The Knights have got severe problems though, because of their pedestrian attack, they are continually setting up for the next play.
“The strike play in each set of six doesn’t arrive, it’s a set up into a set up, into a set up and then finally they run a block play and you think, is that what you’ve been setting up for.
“It’s taken you two tackles to get there to run a simple block play.
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“Part of the magic of the way that Penrith play, Penrith are coming at you from every tackle with something.
“Even their little set up plays have something in there to just test you a little bit.
“Newcastle are just running dud play into dud play, into dud play.”
The Knights also have a problem with identifying talent and keeping and letting go the right players in their recruitment and retention program, which is why new director of football Peter Parr has been brought to the club.
James Hooper pointed to the success of former Knights player Jacob Kiraz, who scored a hat-trick for the Bulldogs in their win over his old club as evidence the Knights have lost their way in the recruitment department.
“A classic example of some of the errors that have been made by the Knights in the way that they have lost their way,” Hooper told NRL 360.
“Look at the way that young Bulldogs kid Jacob Kiraz who scored three tries yesterday, they let him go.
“They said they didn’t think he was going to be able to play at the beginning of this season.
“He was on a train and trial contract at Canterbury and now he’s kicked on. There’s been some bad blunders made.”
Kent believes Parr as the club’s director of football is an excellent addition, but it won’t immediately solve the club’s woeful attack. That is up to Adam O’Brien and the players.
“There’s some changes now, Peter Parr’s there so he’s obviously got a lot of work ahead of him,” Kent said.
“I just think Newcastle have been very disappointing but to your point Braith their attack is just so easy to pick what they’re doing and it’s so slow and stale you just wonder what they’re doing.”
Anasta believes the Knights’ attack against the Bulldogs was the worst he had seen in a long time.
“I don’t like being harsh Kenty but it’s the worst I think I’ve seen in years,” Anasta said.
“In a very, very long time. It was pass, pass, pass.
“It was like they were relying on a big play, which they don’t have the players to do that.”
The attacking game plan is on coach Adam O’Brien, who has come under fire for quoting his coaching record as an assistant following the Knights’ disappointing loss to the Bulldogs.
Kent pointed out the folly in O’Brien’s assertion that he knows what works because he has been at grand final winning clubs in the Storm and Roosters as an assistant.
“If Adam O’Brien had has chance again he would’ve shut up and said nothing there,” Kent said.
“What he said there is irrelevant because it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it.
“I sat next to Peter Frilingos for ten years, we’re completely different.
“You’ve got to start being the head coach, you’ve got to start making decisions.
“There’s a big difference between being the assistant and the head coach.
“To know what it looks like doesn’t mean you can teach it and that’s the thing most people overlook here.
“There’s this cookie cutter style of football and I’ve spoken about it countless times on this show where everyone looks at what everyone else is doing and says, OK we’ll start coaching that.
“We spoke about it earlier this year when Trent Barrett was trying to incorporate Penrith’s style of attack into Canterbury’s and everyone’s going, he was attacking coach of Penrith why can’t he get it going at Canterbury.
“They’re two different playing groups and sometimes you can’t just sit down and teach a fifth grader algebra or four unit maths, you’ve got to allocate the stepping stones to get there.”
Rothfield believes the key to the Knights’ demise comes back to the decision to let Pearce leave and revealed Adam O’Brien agreed he has eight weeks to save his job in 2023.
“It’s the halfback mate, Mitchell Pearce took them to the finals two years in a row and he walked,” Rothfield said.
“That’s the obvious, easy answer.
“I spoked to Adam O’Brien and he’s asked me, how are the punters seeing it from this side and I said, look I think everyone’s happy that you’re safe for the rest of the year.
“I then said, but I think you’ve got six to eight weeks at the start of next year and you know what? He agreed.”
Kent believes in light of that statement, O’Brien might be on borrowed time because unless the Knights improve their roster in the playmaking department, they won’t be able to turn things around in that time frame.
“If that’s the case I would now shorten that Buzz because Peter Parr’s coming to the club, why would Newcastle take a gamble on the start of next year?” Kent questioned.
“Why would you gamble the first six to eight weeks next year? What happens then if it fails, it’s all over.”
Rothfield believes O’Brien has put a line through this season and is planning for next year already.
“What he’s saying is this year’s a write off,” Rothfield said.
“There’s five games to go. They can’t make the finals, so what he’s saying is that the patience and the loyalty he expects from the boys will go for six to eight weeks next year, they’ll need results.”
Anasta believes O’Brien can coach, but he needs to start producing results to guarantee his long-term future.
“No one’s calling for his head and everyone thinks that he’s got potential to be a really good coach,” Anasta said.
“I think it’s really similar to the Holbrook situation where you’re right both clubs have written off the season, but the start of next year is just everything for both coaches, especially him.
“He’s had some time now and he has seen some success at prominent clubs and we all expected big things out of Adam. I think you’re right six weeks of next year is going to be everything.”
However, Hooper again traced the Knights’ problems to their lack of quality in the halves.
“They’ve got to get busy in terms of key position players because as you’ve pointed out it’s their halves and it’s their attack that have really been brought unstuck this season,” Hooper said.
Kent lamented the lack of quality halves in the competition and particularly at Newcastle, which used to be a breeding ground for playmakers and believes the onus is on the coaches to let players express themselves in the lower grades.
“Newcastle was a breeding ground for halfbacks and again we go back to this style of footy that they’re all copying and teaching in the lower grades,” Kent said.
“Why aren’t they developing halves in the matter that . . . look at Nathan Cleary.
“Day one every time they’ve had a challenge ahead of him they’ve stepped up to it, his understanding of the game, the whole knowledge of his game is first class.
“Yet we go to these clubs and they’re struggling to find one player in the spine who’s elite level, it staggers me.”
Anasta believes the NRL rule changes could bring out the best in young playmakers, if they don’t change the rules again in the near future.
“Those natural halves, when the game went in to that structured footy, playing block for block and getting to the A and B for this and that set piece, that period of the game has taken a generation of halves out because now, it’s the eyes up, play what’s in front of you six again, quick play of the ball style,” Anasta said.
“Those natural No.7s and No.6s are the ones that are shining. Those guys who didn’t rely on game plans and rely on structures and systems, they’re the ones that are blossoming.
“That whole turnaround now if the game stays the same and the rules don’t change and we start messing with everything, we’re going to see these players come back. I think that’s why there’s a shortage myself.”
Rothfield believes the Knights need to take some ownership of their decision to let Pearce leave without an adequate replacement for such a crucial position.
“The two clubs we’re talking about the Titans and the Knights both let two quality halves go, Fogarty and Pearce,” Rothfield said.
“That’s a question for both clubs, why they let them go,” Kent interjected.
“If you haven’t identified that these two guys who you’ve let go are still your number one choice in that position and instead you’ve gambled as they both have on younger players who have not come up to the mark.
“That’s also on the coaching staff that they’ve missed that and failed to identify that.”
All the talk out of the Knights is that they are setting standards to turn the club around, but without quality halves, Anasta believes not much will change.
“Standards are one thing, but roster is another,” Anasta said.
“They can set all the standards they like, but who are they buying next year?”
“They have bought Adam Elliott and Jack Hetherington, which means they have got another lean year,” Kent replied.
“This year the problem that has been identified is the No.6 and the No.7.
“Milford is going to the Dolphins next year. Clifford and Clune were brought in and there was a bit or a wrap on them at the beginning of the year and everyone was marvelling at how well they were going.
“But for whatever reason their form just went right off and neither of them now are producing what they need to produce.”
Paul Crawley noted the Knights invested heavily in Origin star Dane Gagai, whose form has nosedived since helping lead Souths to the 2021 Grand Final.
“Dane Gagai’s form has fallen off a cliff,” Crawley said.
“I would go as far as to say Gagai was the unsung hero in that South Sydney team last year. He was nearly their best player.
“But what has gone wrong with him up there is he is playing like a guy that doesn’t appear happy.”
So how do the Knights turn their roster mistakes around in time for the first eight weeks of next season to guarantee O’Brien’s future?
David Klemmer’s hefty $800,000 contract would help attract a marquee half if he was to get sacked, but you still need a quality playmaker who is available on the open market.
Brooks was seen as the key half to bring in to turn things around, but he will be staying put for 2023 if the Tigers are to be taken on their word.
However, both Tim Sheens and chairman Lee Hagipantelis refused to guarantee he would be at the club beyond his current contract and anything can happen in rugby league.
But if the Knights don’t get Brooks for 2023, the cupboard is bare in terms of off-contract halfbacks available for next season.
Tigers youngster Jock Madden is probably the pick of the off-contract stars, but he is yet to prove himself as a consistent first-grader.
Broncos veteran Albert Kelly, Storm back-up Cooper Johns, Bulldogs half Branbdon Wakeham and Knights youngster Phoenix Crossland round out the off-contract No.7s.
Warriors playmaker Daejarn Asi, Broncos utility Billy Walters and Panthers pair Jaeman Salmon and Kurt Falls round out the five-eighths off-contract, but the Knights don’t need another No.6 as much as they need a halfback to steer the side’s attack.
Ben Hunt, Jackson Hastings and Luke Brooks headline the 2023 off-contract halfbacks, but that won’t help the Knights in the first eight rounds next season and that won’t save Adam O’Brien.
If they don’t get Brooks immediately, by the time the Knights can secure a marquee halfback, O’Brien could already be long gone.
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