Barry Toohey’s Newcastle Knights 2021 season review – Part 3: The future | Newcastle Herald

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Two consecutive bottom-of-the-eight finals appearances despite savage injury tolls and dealing with issues around COVID over the last two seasons has given Knights fans something they haven’t had much of over the past decade – hope. Hope that another NRL premiership title may not be just something they’ll be fantasising about over the next 10 years. But invariably, improved performances bring with them higher expectations and whetted appetites for even more success. And therein lies the challenge for coach Adam O’Brien and his squad, heading into his third season at the helm in 2022. How does this side take another step forward? How does the coach turn his seventh-place team into a serious top four contender next year in the space of an off-season? Presumably, they won’t be fortunate enough to be given the same cushy draw they enjoyed this year but when you factor in the injuries and the clear limitations of their one dimensional attack, there is no question there is enormous scope for improvement. A healthy roster will be key, as will the development of several of their young up-and-coming players. Here, in the final of our three-part Knights-in-review series, we look ahead to 2022 and how the Newcastle can find another level to consistently challenge the premiership heavyweights. The attack needs, and will surely get, a complete pre-season makeover. Their structured and risk-averse style that was so hard to watch and, for the most part, so easy to defend last season just doesn’t cut it in the modern game anymore with the new repeat set rules. The Knights biggest attacking flaw in recent years has been their love affair for one-out hit-ups with no threat of second phase off-loads, even in good-ball areas. Mostly, that’s led to forwards being gang-tackled and slow play-the-balls have followed. Rival sides have compressed their defence, knowing the Knights are not prone to taking risks by shifting the footy early in tackle counts. Continually being forced to attack off the back of slow play-the-balls against a set, fast-moving defence is a strategy that won’t score you many points or win you many games. But that’s often been the case and it’s meant the likes of Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best have largely been left to conjure opportunities out of nothing for themselves. One strategy O’Brien will seriously look at in the pre-season is the same one that Penrith have adopted with Isaah Yeo, Souths with Cam Murray and the Roosters with Victor Radley. Use the likes of Mitch Barnett, Kurt Mann or possibly even Phoenix Crossland as a ball-playing, running first receiver to allow the likes of Mitchell Pearce, Jake Clifford and Ponga to operate wider of the ruck for more width. That will automatically push a compressed defence wider and potentially open up space around the ruck and out wide. Tries from attacking kicks improved after Clifford arrived at the club last season but a lot of other teams are far more threatening then the Knights. So that’s an area to be worked on. Since he landed in the job two seasons ago, Adam O’Brien has largely put all his eggs in the defensive basket for good reason – to try and fix the side’s soft mentality and lack of resolve under pressure when they didn’t have the footy. To some extent, the attack has taken a back-seat under his leadership because of it. But the constant criticism of their predictability with the footy last season and the obvious need to make structural changes won’t mean O’Brien will take his eye off the ball defensively. As the finals series showed, strong defence still wins you the big games and O’Brien knows better than anyone his side may have improved in that area but are going to need to make further big gains in 2022 if they are to match their heavyweight rivals. Knowing the coach, he will still be having recurring nightmares about the three-minute concentration lapse in the semifinal against the Eels when his side conceded two soft tries that ultimately cost them the game. Rest assured, those three minutes will become mental drivers for him when pre-season training kicks off next month. After a tough 2020 with injuries, there was no let-up last season with some big casualties in Pearce, Ponga, Best, Daniel Saifiti, and Lachlan Fitzgibbon, along with the forced retirement of Blake Green, to contend with. It meant the spine only played a handful of games together. The club’s reaction to the spate of injuries has been to put a broom through the high performance and medical departments in one of the biggest footy staffing changes ever seen at the Knights. Highly regarded Hayden Knowles, who has previously been at Parramatta, the Roosters, Gold Coast Titans and more recently at Penrith, has been recruited as the new high performance head and will bring in a new-look staff with him. This time next year, we’ll know the impact of the changes. The only real inclusions are centre Dane Gagai and halfback Adam Clune with Connor Watson and Josh King the notable losses. Gagai’s return is a big one. After four successful seasons at South Sydney, he returns a far better player than when he left and will add experience and strike in a position the Knights have struggled with in recent seasons. Losing a player of Watson’s utility value will limit O’Brien’s options while don’t be surprised if the improving King goes to another level again at the Storm. With everyone healthy, it’s a strong squad, particularly in the forwards with the Saifiti twins among the game’s best props and David Klemmer still a real force up front alongside the likes of Barnett, Jayden Brailey and Tyson Frizell. Pearce’s frame of mind heading into his final season at the club with speculation swirling around about his future and whether he will even play with the Knights in 2022, could become an issue. The Knights’ chances of challenging for the top four could well hinge on their young guns and how quickly they develop given their lack of footy over the past two seasons. Phoenix Crossland, Simi Sasagi, Jirah Momoisea, Pasami Saulo, Dom Young and Starford To’a have all had a taste of NRL with bigger things expected, while there is a lot of excitement around teenage English fullback Bailey Hodgson. We’re expecting the likes of Sasagi and Momoisea to take some giant strides over the pre-season along with Young. We won’t see the fruits of Garth Brennan’s appointment as head of pathways in the short-term but it’s a significant move by the club, as will be the long-awaited opening of the Centre of Excellence, the club’s new home base. IN THE NEWS: Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:



Barry Toohey’s Newcastle Knights 2021 season review – Part 3: The future | Newcastle Herald Source link Barry Toohey’s Newcastle Knights 2021 season review – Part 3: The future | Newcastle Herald

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