Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

OH BROTHER: Twins Jacob, left, and Daniel Saifiti have been mainstays for Newcastle for the past three seasons, but neither would be happy with how 2018 has panned out. Picture: Marina NeilPERHAPS it is too early to be jumping to conclusions.
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But at the halfway point in the 2018NRL season, Sporting Declaration has been pondering a question that raises other questions.

Who have been the Newcastle Knights’ best players this year?

I’d imagine most fans would agree Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce, until he was injured, rate as the standouts, followed by quite a stretch of daylight.

For mine, Slade Griffin would claim the remaining spot on the podium, narrowly ahead of Herman Ese’ese.

What does this tell us about the state of play?

Well, first of all, the recruitment at the end of last season should be considered a success.

Ponga was an 18-year-old novice with two NRL games to his name when Knights coach Nathan Brown and football manager Darren Mooney made himan offer too good to refuse.

At the time, some felt it was a gamble born of desperation, but with the benefit of hindsight, maybe Ponga will prove to be the smartest purchase the Knights have ever made.

Pearce, of course, became available because the Roosters felt Melbourne champion Cooper Cronk was more likely to deliver the premiership they crave.

But on what the two playmakers have shown this season, I reckon Pearce was clearly in better form than his long-time Origin opposite number.

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, Griffin has been worth his weight in gold. When he arrived in Newcastle, he was little known other than for his cameo stint off the bench in Melbourne’s grand final win last season.

But what a revelation hehas been, relishing thechance to establish himself as a starting hooker.

Ese’ese, meanwhile, has been Newcastle’s leading forward in yardage, clocking up on average almost 120 metres a game.

Of the rest of Newcastle’s imports, Aidan Guerra has made more tackles than any Newcastle player, which, combined with his big-game experience and leadership, makes him a valuable all-round commodity.

Veteran props Jacob Lillyman and Chris Heighington have produced about what would have been expected, at this point in their careers, while Tautau Moga’s contribution was sadly cut short by the fourth season-ending knee injury of his luckless career.

All of which brings us to Newcastle’s incumbent players, most of whom had endured the toughest of apprenticeships during the bleakest period in the club’s history.

The consensusof opinionwas that this would be their time to flourish. The harsh lessons ofthe previoustwo or three seasons, combined with the influx of quality recruits, was expected to bring out their best.

Unfortunately for a number of them, this is yet to prove the case.

Front-rower Daniel Saifiti probably summed it up best recently when he told my Herald colleague Barry Toohey he felt his game had “gone backwards” this season.

Big Daniel is certainly not Robinson Crusoe.

His twin brother, Jacob, New Zealand Test hooker Danny Levi, five-eighth Brock Lamb and prop Josh King have all made appearances in reserve grade, and it would seem fair to assume none would be happy with how 2018 has panned out.

Of the other survivors from last season, how many have shown signs of progress and improvement?

Lachlan Fitzgibbon started the season with a flurry of tries, although coach Brown was disappointed with his performance in last week’s loss to Gold Coast.

Ken Sio has scored more tries –six in seven games –than he did in the whole of 2017, enhancing his reputation as a quiet achiever.

Shaun Kenny-Dowall has been generally strong, other than for his occasional errors. Experienced Jamie Buhrer has had little game time and been dropped for the past two games.

Nathan Ross, Newcastle’s leading tryscorer in 2016 and 2017, has crossed the stripe only twice in 11 games, while last season’s player of the year, Mitch Barnett, started slowly but has gradually hit his straps since switching from lock to second row. Sione Mata’utia, who in 2014 became the youngest-ever Kangaroo, has shown glimpses of his potential but been exposed in defence more often than he would like.

The bottom line is that, as a frustrated Brown admitted this week, there are a number of players who have not kicked on and taken their game to another level.

Why that is, I honestly couldn’t say.

But certainly this yearthere are greater expectations ofall Newcastle’s players than hasbeen the case in recent times.

In the previous two seasons, Brown blooded 15 players who were NRL debutants. This yearthere have been none.

Newcastle’s players have more experience, across the board, and hence receive less sympathy when they under-perform.

There is, of course, slightly more than half a season to go, and of Newcastle next seven games, six are at home and one is away, against last-placed Parramatta.

The Knights’campaignhas reached a crucial juncture.There is still time to get it back on track, but collective effort, rather than individual brilliance, will surely be the key.

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