Ponga, Pearce to start in full dress rehearsal for Newcastle

Newcastle will treat their final trial against Cronulla at Maitland Sports Ground on Saturday as a full dress rehearsal before an encore performance against the Sharks in their NRL season-opener at McDonald Jones Stadium on March 15.

Knights coach Nathan Brown plans to give new halves combination Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga at least an hour on the field together against the Sharks after they played the first half of Newcastle’s 18-10 loss to the Dragons in Wollongong last Saturday.

The Knights led 10-6 at half-time before Brown and Dragons counterpart Paul McGregor ran their benches for the last two quarters.

But if the game against the Dragons was aimed at blowing out the cobwebs, the trial against the Sharks will be more about fine-tuning for round one, establishing combinations, and giving starting middle forwards David Klemmer, James Gavet and Tim Glasby more running time.

"Definitely the first 60 to 65 minutes will be more like that, then the back end of the game, we'd certainly like to reward a few of the players who played OK last week or a few of the younger ones who've had a good pre-season," Brown told the media after the team’s final training run at Maitland on Friday.

"A lot more of the players who you're expecting to play in round one will play a fair bit more time … so 'KP' (Ponga) and 'Junior' (Pearce), we'll probably give them 60 to 65 minutes or so, then we'll have a look at the other halves again.

"Our forwards, Timmy Glasby and Klem will get a bit more of a reasonable game hit-out, and I'm pretty confident Cronulla will approach it reasonably similar to us for this trial.

"The fortunate thing is we're playing a side that's putting out a good side and they have been a good side for the past five or six years, so they'll certainly give us an indication of where we're at.

"We feel like we've had a pretty reasonable pre-season but when we run out tomorrow we'll get a bit of an idea of where we're really at."

Though Newcastle's season will not hinge on the outcome, Brown expects his players to perform well and use the game to hone their preparation for the real deal in a fortnight.

"It is every side's main hit-out before the season starts. That's all clubs, apart from the Roosters who had the World Club Challenge," he said.

"But all other sides are putting out near enough to as strong a side as they can  field for round one, so you do want to put a good performance in.

Knights halfback Mitchell Pearce.
Knights halfback Mitchell Pearce. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

"No side's going to be at their best. It's still a trial. It's all aiming towards having a good start to the year so we'd certainly like to put in a decent performance."

Brown might not show his full hand against the Sharks at Maitland but said there was not much to gain from keeping a few tricks up his sleeve for opening night.

"If you play a team in round four, they're certainly going to know what you're doing with all the cameras and stuff that's going on these days. There's not too many secrets in rugby league," he said.

Right winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall will not play after rolling his ankle at training on Thursday. Brown nominated utility Kurt Mann as Kenny-Dowall's replacement, and said 18-year-old Australian Schoolboys representative Starford Toa would also be used on that edge.

Knights utility Kurt Mann.
Knights utility Kurt Mann. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Kenny-Dowall joins fellow outside backs Tautau Moga (knee), Hymel Hunt (hamstring) and Nathan Ross (finger) on the sidelines, though Brown anticipated Kenny-Dowall, Hunt and possibly Moga would be available for selection for round one.

"Kurt will play wing and he'll play some hooker as well. That's one of the great things with Kurt," Brown said.

"We do want him to set a lot of his focus on his dummy-half play, but we've got Rossy, Tau, Hymel and now 'Skidsy' out, so we're down four of our more senior backs.

"Kurt's versatility is great and Cronulla will have a pretty strong side out there and Star's only 18, so him playing only a short amount of time is better for his development as well."

Former Australian winger Sione Mata'utia will start at left centre, though Brown still plans to use him in the back row once the regular outside backs recover from their injuries.

After a 26-6 loss to Parramatta in the 2018 pre-season, this will be the second straight year the Knights have played a trial game at Maitland.

"As far as country grounds go, I think we'd all agree it's a very good facility," Brown said.

"It’s good to see a pretty good roll-up here, and the roll-up this year to the captain's run was a fair bit bigger than last year. Obviously a little bit of extra expectation brings a few more people along."