With Christmas well and truly over and the sevens tournament completed, season 2004 is almost upon us. For the Newcastle Knights it could prove to be one of the most crucial in their short existence. The upgrading of Energy Australia Stadium, coupled with contract negotiations with star players Andrew Johns, Ben Kennedy, and Timana Tahu, along with coach Hagan, add up to a difficult time for the club.
Stage 1 of the stadium upgrade is well underway, but the enormity of the job has seen the Knights given no option than to request and be given their first five games to be played away, Those games being against defending premiers Penrith followed by the Storm, Eels, Dragons, and the Warriors, a daunting task to begin the season made all the more difficult by facing up to competition heavyweights the Roosters for their first home game of the season in round six. The upgrade will also throw out a challenge to the clubs money minders. Not having the support of a licensed club behind them, it�s no secret that the Knights rely heavily on �bums on seats� for much of their income, so it is significant that the ground capacity during the upgrade will be reduced from around 25.000 to a mere 16,000, how the club manages this shortfall will be quite a challenge.
On the player front Andrew Johns� return to the playing field will be much anticipated by the clubs followers, injury has seen him miss the finals series for two seasons now. How he has recovered from a serious neck injury which threatened to end his career will been keenly watched. It is to be hoped that contract negotiations with players, in particular Andrew Johns do not disrupt the team too much during the season and affect the side�s performance on the field. Ben Kennedy has proven to be a vital cog in the Knights machine and he too has been plagued by injury in recent times, a fit Kennedy is a must for the team.
The Knights, not renowned for buying/recruiting players outside the club have this season signed some significant players. These signings made possible with the freeing up of funds due to the departure of high profile players Adam McDougall, premiership winning 5/8th Sean Rudder, and to a lesser extent the departure of Matt Jobson to the Warriors.
David Seage a fullback from Queensland is seen by those who�ve seen him play as the likely replacement for veteran Robbie O�Davis, the only thing preventing him from going to the Broncos being the presence there of Australian fullback Darren Lockyer. The Knights have signed the brother of Eels player Michael Witt (Steve) as what many see as a possible replacement for Andrew Johns when he finally ends his playing days with the Knights. Former Cronulla, and Souths centre Russell Richardson is another signing made by the club, Given the forgetful year experienced by Mark Hughes last season if he can regain the form that saw him play for Australia he will press for a starting spot in the centres this year.
The standout player for the club in the sevens was George Carmont another recruit from the local Newcastle competition. He played in last years Grand Final and was the player of the match in a beaten team, a New Zealander he came to the district after failing to obtain a contract with the Warriors in 2002. A big robust centre or winger he achieved the not to easy feat of running across field during the sevens to run down Manly speed machine Scott Donald and make a try saving tackle. He is another who may put pressure on Hughes position in 2004. Add to those players the likes of Michael Ennis (the clubs top try scorer last year) and the youngsters who filled in the top grade during last years injury riddled season, and the playing ranks are looking better than ever for the club.
The progress of youngster Kade Snowden with be watched by many, tipped as the most promising junior to come to the club since the Johns boys, it wouldn�t surprise to see him feature for the team sometime during the year.
The Knights are well known for their tough resolve during difficult times, this coming season will see that resolve tested to it�s fullest.