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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Barry Toohey

TOOHEY'S NEWS: Why a roster cleanout can't save the Knights

As if the headlines of the past few weeks, coming on top of a disastrous season littered with poor performances, haven't been bad enough, here is another sobering thought for long-suffering Newcastle fans.

If the Knights are to rise from the canvas and re-establish some on-field credibility in 2023 and at the same time save coach Adam O'Brien's bacon, they are going to have to do so with largely the same group of players responsible for the dramatic fall from grace this season.

The players who dug the hole will have to dig themselves out of it.

Suggestions an off-season clean-out is needed to arrest the slide won't get past first base for the simple reason the Knights have next to no room to make any further significant roster changes.

New Knights signing Adam Elliott

With three games left this season, we can reveal the club already has 27 of their top 30 roster spots filled for next year with the addition of just three new players.

Adam Elliott from Canberra and Jack Hetherington from the Bulldogs are signed while Wigan and former Eels outside back Bevan French has agreed to terms and will become player number 27.

That leaves just three spots open with one ear-marked for halfback Luke Brooks if he can be prised out of the West Tigers or potentially another halfback option.

One of the final two spots will go to Wigan backrower Kai Pearce-Paul if an agreement is reached with his English club for an early release. Pearce-Paul will definitely be a Knight in 2024 but is still tied to the Warriors next season and they are reluctant to let him go.

Knights prop Mat Croker will be in the top 30 for the first time next season along with promoted NSW Cup centre Dylan Lucas.

On the debit side from this year's top 30 are the departures of Mitch Barnett, Anthony Milford, Edrick Lee, Jesse Sue, Jirah Momoisea and Brayden Musgrove. Tex Hoy, who is on a development contract, is also leaving.

Current top 30 players Phoenix Crossland and Pasami Saulo are off contract but still in limbo with their futures up in the air.

It's possible some extra spots could open up if the Knights opt to try and move contracted players on and a player swap would no doubt be considered to sweeten a release deal for Pearce-Paul.

But the challenge for O'Brien next season will be to at least get the best out of an under-performing squad.

If he can't, his time will likely be up. Given half the roster is coming off contract next year, there could well be a whole host of casualties.

Parr's mandate for change

If he needed any ammunition to bring about meaningful change at the club, new Knights boss Peter Parr has been provided with plenty in his short time at the helm. The test now is how quickly will players and staff raise their standards and fall into line behind him.

For the most part, Parr's response to the chaos going on at the club has been calm, measured and most importantly, honest. There is already a sense he is the right man for a crisis.

Peter Parr

As for Kalyn Ponga, I'm on record well before this week's toilet cubical drama as saying he shouldn't be the Knights captain going forward. But the intensity of the pile-on from fans and sections of the media this week has been over the top and in many cases hypocritical.

The hope is if Ponga does need a personal or professional reality check, this is it and he takes it on board and turns it into a positive.

Hunt on outer?

Hymel Hunt could potentially be one contracted player on the outer at the club given his surprising lack of game time in the top grade this season.

The winger has played 62 NRL games for the Knights over the past four years but has only played one in 2022.

Hymel Hunt

Injuries have been a factor and we might be reading too much into it but Hunt is set to play NSW Cup tomorrow despite coach O'Brien axing outside backs Bradman Best and Enari Tuala for disciplinary reasons.

At the very least, it's an indication he is well out of favour. The loss of Edrick Lee to the Dolphins could be his saving grace.

Gags' centre days numbered

Dane Gagai is one of the club's most experienced and decorated players but if he is to be a regular at NRL level over the final two years of his Knights contract, it surely must be as a winger and not a centre.

Dane Gagai

While he is still a genuine threat in attack, Gagai's defensive brittleness has been exposed far too often this season for Adam O'Brien to persist with him at right centre in 2023. Had there been options available, he may not have lasted this long.

Gagai's usual centre partner on the left, Bradman Best, has also had plenty of defensive issues resulting in the Knights leaking like a sieve on both edges.

DSaf off the mark

It's taken 22 rounds but Knights prop Daniel Saifiti has finally broken his duck, picking up points for the first time this season in Baz's Best player of the year competition in last weekend's loss to the Broncos in Brisbane.

Rd 22: Knights v Broncos

3 Daniel Saifiti 2 Tyson Frizell 1 Jacob Saifiti

Progress points: 21 David Klemmer 14 Dom Young 10 Kalyn Ponga, Mitch Barnett 9 Tyson Frizell, 7 Kurt Mann, Anthony Milford, Edrick Lee 5 Chris Randall, Dane Gagai 4 Jake Clifford, Enari Tuala 3 Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti 2 Jayden Brailey, Tex Hoy, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Simi Sasagi 1 Bradman Best, Phoenix Crossland.

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