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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Max McKinney

Knights NRL season review: Part I - the positives

Just about everything went wrong for Newcastle's NRL side in 2022, a campaign perhaps best described by Knights coach Adam O'Brien as a "tough, shitty season".

When the curtain fell on the year, the Knights were left in 14th position - only two wins clear of last place.

At first glance, finding the positives in a season that was littered with poor performances, a string of injuries and a range of other issues seemed like a tricky task.

And while there isn't too much to be glowing about, upon reflection, there are more than a few standouts among a season to forget.

Young talent time

The resounding positive this season was the improvement of Dominic Young.

The now 21-year-old may have had a shaky start to his NRL career but put the work in to turn it around.

The improvement of Knights flyer Dominic Young was the overwhelming positive to come out of season 2022. The 21-year-old Englishman became a first-choice winger, scoring 14 tries in 20 games. Pictures by Peter Lorimer

He solidified his spot on the right wing from basically round one when he produced a spirited defensive showing and athletic diving try.

Young went on to score 14 in 20 appearances. He had to overcome an early knee injury but was one of the side's most consistent players.

His strong kick-returns and early-set carries are something Newcastle have lacked in recent seasons.

The sky could be the limit for the Englishman, the only Knights player involved in the World Cup.

A strong start 

While it quickly became a faded memory given the seven-game losing streak that followed, Newcastle's start, particularly the opening-round win over the Roosters, their first at the SCG, was one the club and fans savoured given the grim predictions of some pundits that the side would run last.

They followed it up with a win over the Tigers and, at that stage, looked like they might prove the experts wrong.

They were solid against the Panthers the next week as well, and even after Mitch Barnett's send-off they scored three tries.

But from then on, the season nosedived.

David Klemmer

David Klemmer said after the first trial that he "felt like a 20-year-old" again after a big pre-season, and the prop certainly rolled back the clock on a number of occasions this season.

Who can forget the enforcer's eyes popping out when he went at Souths prop Keaon Koloamatangi in round 17?

There were similar scenes when he approached Dragons centre Zac Lomax in round six.

David Klemmer.

While Klemmer got sent off against Souths, it hardly mattered as the game was already lost.

In a side collectively lacking passion and spirit across the year, Klemmer's actions at least showed he cared and would stand up for his teammates.

The 28-year-old returned from a knee injury to make 18 appearances, running for an average 155 metres per game and missing only 18 tackles all year.

He was the side's most consistent performer and voted players' player.

Origin performers

Jacob Saifiti and Tyson Frizell got picked in the NSW squad for Origin I but neither played.

The week in camp likely helped Jacob earn a late call-up for the series decider and despite the Blues' loss, the 26-year-old justified his selection with a barnstorming performance that included a try and 135 metres from 13 runs.

Playing under Billy Slater, arguably the best fullback to have played the game, Knights skipper Kalyn Ponga put Newcastle's form aside to produce his best for Queensland.

Ponga claimed his first series win with a man-of-the-match performance in Origin III.

Dane Gagai's defence might have been questioned, but he rose to the occasion once again to win a fifth Origin series.

Edrick's return

Sidelined by a foot injury for all of 2021, there was no more heart-warming story than winger Edrick Lee's return. The fan favourite finally put his injury woes behind him to play 16 games.

The Knights let Jacob Kiraz go to keep Lee on their books and while Kiraz might have excelled at the Bulldogs, including scoring three tries against the Knights, you'd have to say Lee justified their decision this season despite his move to the Dolphins.

As if the 29-year-old's return wasn't enough of a feelgood story, Lee set a new club record for the most tries scored in a game when he bagged five in round 16.

Edrick Lee.

Rookies rise 

The Knights debuted three players in 2022: Leo Thompson, Krystian Mapapalangi and Oryn Keeley.

Despite a few errors you might expect from a rugby union convert, hard-running Kiwi Leo Thompson proved up to the task. He clearly impressed the coach, playing 18 of 19 games prior to an injury that ruled him out for the year.

Mapapalangi was knocking on the door for a chance and got it in round 23. The 19-year-old centre held his own and earned a second game before returning to Jersey Flegg for finals. He could put genuine pressure on the more experienced outside-backs next year if he has a strong summer.

Krystian Mapapalangi.

Keeley, 19, had a surprise debut with limited involvement but has been left salivating for more. He will start pre-season training with the NRL squad for the first time next month.

Mat Croker, who debuted in 2021, was also a shining light.

He started the year on a reserve-grade deal but ended up making 18 appearances, more than earning his upgrade to the top-30 roster.

There are big hopes for the 23-year-old Nabiac product.

Centre of Excellence 

The name of Newcastle's $25 million training base at Broadmeadow certainly isn't an apt description for what transpired in 2022, but move into the facility is going to benefit the club long term.

The video room at the Centre of Excellence.

Beyond the professional resources it offers, which put the club on par with any other, it creates a new elite environment that players coming through the grades can aspire to be a part of.

If the Knights can leverage the facility like Penrith have with theirs, it should pay dividends in years to come.

Junior sprouts 

There were plenty of eyebrows raised as local juniors or former players hit their strides elsewhere this season, but the Knights appear to have some talent youth coming through the ranks.

The under-21s side fell short in the grand final, losing 19-18 in golden point to Penrith, but they beat the western-Sydney powerhouse club on three occasions through the year.

Most Knights players are eligible to play Flegg again next year, but expect to see a few spending time in the senior grades.

  • IN FRIDAY'S HERALD: Season review part II - the negatives.
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