There’s two ways to look at the 2023 season for Newcastle.
Either they were always quite good, but were cruelled by poor luck and injuries before proving their worth late on, or they were saved by a late hot streak that elevated the Knights to a place that was perhaps a little above where they actually should have been.
Actually, there might be a third: the club willingly sabotaged their own season to keep their most expensive player happy, before realising the error of their ways when the coach was about to get sacked and riding the train of devil-may-care confidence all the way to the finals.
Newcastle’s was a season of two halves – they were 14th for all of June – and they certainly were lucky in that there was something there to salvage at the time their form came, largely because Souths and Parramatta went into freefall and Canberra were never good to begin with.
Had they not defeated the Bulldogs 66-0 on July 2, Adam O’Brien would likely have been out of a job and Kalyn Ponga, who went on to win the Dally M, would have been seen as a huge, expensive failure.
The reason the two interpretations of the season matter is that, going into 2024, expectations will be high and it makes sense to try to discern whether that is reasonable or not.
Footy fans tend to have short memories, and the best bits of Newcastle’s season all came at the end, so it’s easy to remember when they were good. That sets the standard for performance next year very high, and perhaps unreasonably so.
O’Brien is yet to sign a contract extension beyond the end of 2024 – though, reports will tell you, it remains in the works – so it might be that the higher-ups at the Knights are also looking at last year a little more analytically.
However you saw 2023, the chances for 2024 do seem strong.
The Knights’ style finally came together in the manner that it has periodically threatened to do since the first game of 2022, when they smashed the Roosters on their own patch.
The losses year on year aren’t that bad, with Dom Young and Lachlan Fitzgibbon the main outs plus Kurt Mann, Fa’amanu Brown and Lachlan Miller the depth departures.
All but Young are replaceable and, indeed, the arrivals of Will Pryce and Kai Pearce-Paul from the Super League plus Jack Cogger from the Panthers can almost certainly be considered upgrades in those positions.
The English winger is a different beast, but really, there aren’t any other Dom Young’s out there who are that big, that fast and have that finishing ability.
Across the roster, then, you’d have to say it’s a win. Moreover, the Knights now boast three guys who can play five eighth to go with their Dally M 1 and established, controlled halfback Jackson Hastings.
Pryce, Cogger and Tyson Gamble provide a level of depth in playmaking positions that is invaluable with the market for halves as competitive as it ever has been – and, if anything, the challenge is going to be working out who goes where.
The five eighth situation is the challenge for O’Brien. He’s overloaded with options now, but realistically can only carry one of the three at one time.
There’s Gamble, who put in his best showing in the NRL late last year and would rightly feel that he has done absolutely nothing to deserve to be dropped.
There’s Cogger, fresh off a Grand Final win with the Panthers who moved to the club to get that regular NRL footy, and who had a point to prove after failing to establish himself in his first stint.
Then there’s the wild card, Pryce, rated as one of the best young players in Super League and, at just 20, the option with the highest ceiling.
Gamble and Cogger can’t really play anywhere else but in the halves and Pryce’s only other option is fullback, where Ponga is going to be.
The likelihood is that Pryce begins life in the NSW Cup with the other two fighting it out, though it would not surprise if the Pommy half impresses in trials and gets a jumper.
It’s a good problem to have for O’Brien, but could also be a problem if none of the three stand out, or if any of the three who aren’t playing kick up a fuss.
As far as roster management goes, it doesn’t look that smart to have three decent options for a key position – taking up three wages’ worth of salary cap – when it might otherwise have been possible to have one excellent option and a good back-up, with cash elsewhere.
Gamble is up at the end of the year and his stock has never been higher, so it might be in the interests of all parties to see if there were takers for him, with his money going to solve other areas of the team (namely Bradman Best’s new contract) or even to invest in an elite winger to fill Young’s spot. Shane Flanagan, for one, might suddenly want a word.
There’s other areas, too, that will vex the coach.
Phoenix Crossland stood in so well for Jayden Brailey that it would be awfully cruel for him not to continue in the role, having ended 2023 as one of the form hookers in the comp.
Brailey has played just 13 games in two years and one full season of the last three, having endured horrendous luck with injuries, but was exceptional the last time he was able to stay on the field.
One suspects that Crossland’s versality might play against him here, with O’Brien able to park him in the 14 jumper for short minutes rather than the lengthier playing time he got in 2023.
As mentioned: these are good problems to have. The issue will be that, if results aren’t good straight away, there will be a temptation to chop and change that might play against the cohesion that contributed so much to that run last year.
The Knights played almost the same team throughout the year, with 17 players making more than 18 appearances.
After the bye in Round 14, the line-up barely altered – even though Newcastle lost three straight, it was two close defeats to the Broncos and Roosters, then away at the Panthers.
From there out, it was ten wins in a row, all the way to the second week of the finals.
That consistency came, largely, because there wasn’t anyone else to pick and O’Brien was forced to play the guy he had and coach them into shape. He did that superbly.
In 2024, he’ll have to show the same consistency of purpose and thought to get the best out this Knights side again, but with the added pressure that comes from having options and, crucially, dealing with expectations.