Newcastle Knights opinion, Kalyn Ponga captain, Peter Parr, manager Adam O’Brien, recruitment

There have never been high hopes for Newcastle this season, but it’s fair to say things have turned out even worse than expected.

Without established halfback back-up Mitchell Pearce and hooker Jayden Brailey missing half the season through injury, this would have been a brave man who backed the Knights to win the title, or even come close.

The signing of Dane Gagai briefly sparked excitement among starving fans, but he failed to fill the most pressing void in the club’s roster.

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Leadership is always their biggest problem.

The Knights haven’t had a solid leader on the field in a long time. Pearce was kicked out of the captaincy ahead of the start of the 2021 season when he was caught exchanging flirty text messages with a member of club staff. Less than 12 months later, he left the club with a year left on his contract.

Kalyn Ponga was elevated to a leadership role too soon, as evidenced by at least two incidents this season.

In May, he gave a post-match interview to the Fox League after a 50-2 draw at the hands of Melbourne, which league legend Greg Alexander described as “embarrassing”.

Now he is conflicted after footage emerged showing he was kicked out of a pub toilet alongside team-mate Kurt Mann, who are both currently on the injured list.

The fact that this happened while the Knights were wiped out by the Broncos raises questions about his suitability for the role.

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Ponga is an outstanding footballer, but that doesn’t mean he also qualifies as a captain. Many good athletes don’t naturally fit into leadership roles.

The problem for the Knights goes deeper than Ponga. If Peter Parr and Adam O’Brien decided to remove him from the role, it is difficult to place an obvious successor. Brailey can be a solid captain, but he’s only played 100 games in his career and spent two of his three seasons in the Hunter sitting out on injured duty.

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David Klemmer is the most experienced but was sacked a fortnight ago over a heated exchange with team coach Hayden Knowles, and before that tried to leave the club mid-season to join Parramatta. Klemmer is free to negotiate with rival clubs from November 1 and his days at the club look numbered.

Gagai and Tyson Frizell are Origin players and are certainly present on the team, but are they the kind of personalities to carry the team on their backs when needed?

The Knights need a player who can set standards and put his teammates in line on the field. As it stands, there are 13 players on the pitch at any one time, all looking for someone to tell them what to do, and not seeing them.

Brisbane had the same problem last year and the year before. So what did they do? Bring Adam Reynolds to Red Hill.

Now, the Broncos’ raw talent is complemented by an experienced, calm head that gives them much-needed direction in real time.

The Cowboys did the same with Chad Townsend. The Sharks have added Dale Finucane – a born leader – to complete the voice of Wade Graham, as well as Nicho Hynes who is emerging as a leader in his own right.

All three of these clubs have improved dramatically this season thanks to smart recruiting.

Even Canterbury are benefiting from the addition of Josh Addo-Carr, who was seen shouting at his teammates ‘this is not a fucking break’ during a stoppage in a game earlier this season. It may seem small, but it indicates the general attitude and discipline of a football team.

The Knights desperately need someone who will yell – with or without the added swear words – at the players when it’s best for the team. Reports say they are tired of hearing this from the coach, and Ponga has never been seen as someone willing to spill uncomfortable truths at home.

The smartest purchase Newcastle have made in years is the addition of Parr as the club’s new footballing boss.

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Parr was instrumental in transforming North Queensland into a premiership side in 2015, and he certainly knows what leadership looks like.

“There has been a lack of leadership around the group of players,” Parr said of the Knights during his first press conference for the club on Tuesday.

“It’s a young group, just because you make someone a leader, or put them in a leadership position, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to grab the leadership right away.”

It’s a valid point – and Ponga and Brailey could one day become solid leaders and quality captains of an NRL side.

But until then, the Knights have a void and, like the Cowboys, Sharks and Broncos did last year, they may have to go to the market to find the man to fill it.

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