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Scott Bailey

Cogger 'a must' for Newcastle halves: Matthew Johns

Back at Newcastle, Jack Cogger has received a ringing endorsement from Knights great Matthew Johns. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

Matthew Johns has urged Newcastle to pick Jack Cogger in their halves, adamant the returning Knight should be the first playmaker selected against Canberra.

The attention of the rugby league world will switch from Las Vegas back to Australia on Tuesday, with teams for the rest of NRL round one to be named.

Canterbury coach Cameron Ciraldo must decide whether to include Bronson Xerri in his backline for his first NRL game since his positive drug test in late 2019.

Canberra coach Ricky Stuart will have to make a call on his new-look spine, with Jordan Rapana locked in to wear the No.1 jersey.

But the most interesting selection debate looms in Newcastle, after they signed Cogger on a three-year deal last August before halves Jackson Hastings and Tyson Gamble took them to the finals.

But in the eyes of Johns, it should be a no-brainer who faces Canberra on Thursday.

"I'm a really big fan of Cogger ... In my opinion, he is a must. He'll start," Johns told AAP while in Las Vegas for Fox Sports.

"Jack has started to understand his own game and what works for him. His contribution in the grand final for Penrith has been so greatly under-appreciated.

"The confidence it must have given Jack."

Jack Cogger
Jack Cogger (l) celebrates Nathan Cleary's match-winning try in the 2023 grand final. (James Gourley/AAP PHOTOS)

Johns said he expected Hastings to retain his spot in the Knights halves.

"Gamble originally was brought to the club to play a little bit of utility and the No.13 role, so I wouldn't be surprised if he slips back into that role," the Knights great said.

"Whether it be starting, or coming off the bench."

One of the fairytale stories of last season, Newcastle's season fate realistically still rests largely with Kalyn Ponga after he caught fire late in 2024.

Already among the best players in the game, this season looms as one that can lift Ponga to another level if he proves he is able to back up last year's form.

"Probably the most unsexy word these days is consistency. Particularly in an age of highlight reel moments," Johns said.

"But for Kalyn that's the next step. When you're taking up a lot of the cap, like Kalyn is, then it's your duty every week that you're 'on'."

Johns believed the 25-year-old Ponga was now mature enough to do so.

"The five-eighth experiment (early last year), whilst it didn't work, I get the feeling that in a lot of ways it helped his game," Johns said.

"I think it gave him a greater appreciation of other roles and things you have to do.

"With actually start to understand your own game.

"You understand what sequencing suits your game, where you like to receive the football and what attacking shapes you should use.

"I'm starting to see that with Kalyn.

"He sits on that left side, just past the posts. And he rips around and threatens that third-last defender.

"And (Kalyn) either feints and skips, or cuts on the inside. It's just a nightmare for that defender."

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