VERSATILE: Slade Griffin, who played in Melbourne’s grand final win against the Cowboys, is joining Newcastle next season. Picture: APNEWCASTLE’S priority would appear to be outside backs as they strive to fill the remaining positions in their squad for 2018.
After a productive recruitment campaign dating back to November last year, when Newcastle announced they had signed North Queensland tyro Kalyn Ponga 12 months in advance, Knights coach Nathan Brown has steadily rebuilt his roster.
It is understood he still hopes to add another two or three imports during the 2018 pre-season, although he has also stated on a number of occasions that he is willing to leave positions vacant in case players at rival clubs belatedly enter the market.
The Knights have announced the signing of two veteran front-rowers, Jacob Lillyman (Warriors) and Chris Heighington (Cronulla), in the past two weeks.
Along with Herman Ese’ese (Brisbane), they will bolster an engine-room rotation that already includes Daniel and Jacob Saifiti and Josh King.
Newcastle have also been linked to controversial young prop Matt Lodge, who has not played in the NRL since being sacked by Wests Tigers and de-registered after a much-publicised incident in New York in 2015.
Lodge, a former Junior Kangaroo who played 12 NRL games with the Tigers, spent this season with Redcliffe in the Queensland Cup.
The 22-year-old has also attracted the interest of Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett, although Newcastle are probably in a position to offer him a more lucrative deal than the Broncos.
Ideally, Newcastle would be hoping to sign one more prop before next season.
NEW RECRUIT: Former Sydney Roosters utility Connor Watson will get first crack at five-eighth for Newcastle next season. Picture: AAP
Brown is understood to be satisfied with his back-row depth. Former Queensland and Test forward Aidan Guerra will join Mitch Barnett, Sione Mata’utia, Jamie Buhrer, Sam Stone, Luke Yates and Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who was one of the finds of the season in 2017, scoring eight tries in 14 games. Former Melbourne utility Slade Griffin can also play back row as well as hooker.
Despite signing Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Roosters) mid-season and then Tautau Moga (Brisbane), Newcastle would welcome a couple more outside backs to provide depth.
At this stage, Kenny-Dowall and Moga are shaping as Newcastle’s likely centres, with Chanel Mata’utia to challenge Nathan Ross and Ken Sio for a wing berth.
Ponga is certain to start the season at fullback, with Dylan Phythian as his back-up, once he has recovered from knee surgery.
Brown has promised former Roosters utility Connor Watson first shot at five-eighth, alongside either Brock Lamb or Trent Hodkinson.
Lamb would appear the early favourite after his impressive 2017 campaign, but Hodkinson is vastly experienced and might benefit from playing behind a stronger pack. There has also been speculation, however, that Hodkinson is consideringcontinuing his career in England.