Are The Knights Moving Or Standing Still?
It has been another rollercoaster season for the Newcastle Knights.
Just like last year, they finished up at 7th on the ladder before their campaign officially ended a week later.
The 2021 season is difficult to judge.
Key players once again missed time due to injury and cohesion remained an issue throughout the year. At their best, the Knights wouldn't look out of place at 5th or 6th on the ladder. However, the times resembling more of a 12th or 13th side can't be ignored either.
Braith Anasta talked about a lack of evolution as a reason for giving them a pass mark for the season which sparked a passionate response from the Knights fanbase.
"The key word is evolution. I’ve got to be honest I haven’t seen that much evolution in the Knights over the last couple of years."
He's both right and wrong in his assessment.
The Knights have undoubtedly evolved overall in recent years. Perhaps Anasta wasn't looking as far back in his assessment, but Newcastle's three consecutive wooden spoons between 2015 and 2017 need to be mentioned. The Knights are now a back-to-back finals team. To make the finals twice in four years following three 16th-placed finishes is an encouraging evolution that gives life to the idea of further improvement in 2022.
Sure, the Knights are historically one of the worst 7th-placed teams in NRL history simply by the numbers, but it's the '7th' that is the most important number moving forward. To bounce back from the Nathan Brown era with two Finals matches in as many years shows that the club is on the right path regardless of the perceived ceiling of the current playing group and staff.
Anasta does have an argument for a lack of evolution in attack, though.
To be ahead of only the hapless Bulldogs in points per game is a step back. Maybe three or four steps back. However, the Knights at their best did give us a glimpse of what might be to come in 2022. Unsurprisingly, it centres around Kalyn Ponga.
Where has it gone wrong in attack?
First and foremost, the Knights managed to name their first-choice spine in Round 16 this year for the first time since Round 2 of the 2020 season. Ponga, Pearce, Jayden Brailey and Jake Clifford shared the field just six times all season.
When we look at the Storm we see a cohesive spine that has played together for years. Nicho Hynes is an excellent footballer, but his time with the Storm leading up to becoming a regular starter is a big part of his breakout season.
A large chunk of the Panthers side has come up through the grades together. Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary, in particular, have been playing beside each other in the halves for years and have a clear understanding of each other on the field.
Cohesion is a factor in the Rabbitohs' success, too. Damien Cook, Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker, and more recently Latrell Mitchell, have been developing their combination over at least two years and it translated into an incredible attacking season when at full strength.
The Knights, on the other hand, haven't had the opportunity to develop cohesion in key playmaking positions. Clifford only arrived at the club halfway through the season and injuries to Pearce and Ponga has made the development of combinations, even on the training paddock, difficult to achieve.
The results on the field speak for themselves. Nothing more than their 15th-ranked 17.9 points per game.
It may come as a surprise to some to see that the distribution of Newcastle's tries in 2021 is exactly the same as in 2020.
They scored 21 points per game last season. Ponga and Pearce linked up for Newcastle to score 51% of their tries down a potent left edge while 24% came through the middle and 25% down the right side.
With only 17.9 points per game in 2021, the Knights finished 15th in attack. Again, 51% of their tries were scored down their potent left edge, 24% came through the middle and 25% down the right side.
The eye test since Ponga returned in Round 16 has told us he has spent a lot more time down the right edge than he usually does. It makes sense given the left edge is still the proportionately dominant side but the Knights attack is down on production overall.
A desperate search for points down the right side has looked clunky at times and has stalled the Knights attack in key moments, though.
"Don't get too cute and try to spread the attack across the field under the guise of being more unpredictable. Use Ponga where he has consistently been at his best over the last four years and attack a clearly vulnerable area for the opposition." - Can The Knights or the Titans Spring A Finals Shock?
With their season on the line and in search of points, the Knights went back to what worked in Week 1 of the finals. Unsurprisingly, they found success down the left edge for Enari Tuala to finish up with three tries as Ponga ran riot with his running and passing game.
It was both encouraging and frustrating to see the Knights score so easily down the left edge against the Eels last week. They clearly play their best football when targeting that side of the field and it will have them in positions to win games in 2022. However, it is frustrating to think how many points they left on the field throughout the year by not making the most of the left edge attack more often.
Perhaps this was all an exercise to find the right balance with next year in mind? It never looked quite right this year.
What will the Knights attack look like in 2022?
So much of it comes down to the health of their key playmakers. Pearce, Ponga, Brailey and Clifford all finished the 2021 season on the field so we can be hopeful that all will run out for Round 1 in 2022.
That would be a start and the spine developing their combination will only open up opportunities for the likes of Bradman Best, Hymel Hunt, Enari Tuala, returnee Dane Gagai and Newcastle's hard-running edges.
It seems clear based on how Newcastle has used the ball in recent weeks that having Ponga float to both sides and play on the ball more often is going to be a feature moving forward. Talk of his move into five-eighth regularly does the rounds and has been a point of interest recently. However, with Pearce signed through to the end of 2022, Ponga is unlikely to make the move forward before then.
In the meantime, he can fill a James Tedesco-like role and take possession one off the ruck rather than simply acting as a support player.
“If I’m looking after Kalyn I’m telling him to handle the ball on back to back plays and away we go. There was less of Kalyn on block shapes and he is so dangerous at first and second receiver, particularly on the left hand side of the field.” - Matthew Johns
Ponga is at his most dangerous down the left edge - that is news to nobody. It's how he comes into possession that might start to change. Rather than a typical shift to the left with Ponga running out the back of a block, expect to see him as the primary ball-handler more often. We caught a prime example of him touching the ball on back-to-back plays and it translating into points earlier in the season.
He passed Daniel Saifiti into a gap while drawing Tyson Gamble onto Connor Watson here. With Gamble in front of the ball and therefore behind on the play once Saifiti worked through his quick play-the-ball, Ponga went straight for the Broncos five-eighth. Newcastle has the numbers advantage which Brisbane responds to by tracking backwards on the short side. Ponga is too fast, though. He engages Gamble before the Broncos inside defence has time to get across and creates a two on one overlap down the left edge.
It's an excellent short side play and Ponga has his fingerprints all over it. He took the ball at first receiver and created a try-scoring opportunity in a matter of seconds one tackle later.
While he is still likely to wear the #1 jersey and fill typical fullback duties next season, Ponga playing on the ball is the next stage of his evolution as a player, and the Knights attack overall.
Did you enjoy this article? Join our free mailing list to get the best content delivered straight to your inbox, or join the conversation by leaving a comment below or on the Stats Insider Twitter or Facebook page.