Laurie Daley sent shockwaves through the NRL this week by reporting that Newcastle were looking to offload star halfback Mitchell Pearce.
Pearce, 31, is off-contract following the 2021 season. Although Newcastle CEO Phil Gardner told reporters as recently as June he was keen on re-signing Pearce, there are murmurs the club is looking elsewhere after a lacklustre finals campaign from the premiership-winning half.
While they are just rumours at this point, we had a look at who the Knights might target should they be shopping around, in no particular order.
Adam Reynolds Pulling him out of South Sydney would take an almighty sales pitch. But if it were possible, it could bag the Knights a premiership.
As consistent as they come, Reynolds’ impeccable kicking game has been complemented by a higher football IQ and game management skills in the past few seasons. A proven big-game player, the grand final winner should be firmly in Adam O’Brien’s sights.
If Jayden Brailey remains fit and in form, Kurt Mann would most likely wear number six after a breakout year in 2020. A quick big body five-eighth, Mann would be freed up by Reynolds kicking game to do what he does best – run. Think Jack Wighton and George Williams in 2020.
Reynolds’ combinations with Latrell Mitchell and Corey Allan give Kalyn Ponga plenty to work with. Behind a forward pack boasting David Klemmer, Tyson Frizell and the Saifiti brothers Reynolds would have plenty of space to create.
Reynolds has forced 20 drop outs to Pearce’s ten this year and averages more kick metres while Pearce has four more try assists than Reynolds seven – and Pearce doesn’t have Cody Walker.
Oh, and converting two-pointers at a touch over 86 per cent can’t hurt your team’s chances.
Good luck getting him out of South Sydney though.
George Williams On the back of a sizzling debut season at Canberra, the Englishman has established himself as one of the most dynamic and creative halfbacks in the NRL. With a strong follow-up season in 2021, Williams could command big money when his contract expires at the end of 2022.
Seven tries and 14 try assists to Williams outshines Pearce’s two tries and 11 assists, both players having played 21 games. At 25 years old he’s a long-term prospect, and given how quickly he formed combinations with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad as well as Canberra’s forward pack – it stands to reason he could do the same with the quality players in the Hunter.
While his contract isn’t up until 2022, it’s not unheard of for players to leave a year early. Even if the Knights were to extend Pearce’s contract by a year, he’ll be 34 heading into the 2023 season while Williams will be well and truly in his prime at 28.
Whether it’s sooner or later, the Knights should definitely be looking at this young man.
Shaun Johnson With his and Mitchell Pearce’s contracts expiring at the same time, Johnson’s signature would be a declaration from Adam O’Brien that the Knights are looking to win a premiership right now.
The Newcastle faithful will tell you they’ve got the team to do it next year. But failure to really compete for the title might see Johnson, 30, brought to the club in a similar fashion to when Cooper Cronk joined the Roosters in 2018.
The difference being Shaun Johnson hasn’t won a premiership. Nor has he ever shown true consistency throughout a full season, but if he weren’t brought down by injury this year might have been his best ever. 23 try assists, 18 forced dropouts, two tries and a goal-kicking percentage of 76.7 per cent have him well and truly in the mix for the Dally M this year despite only playing 16 games.
Johnson’s proven ability to shift defences and create space would bring players like Bradman Best, Hymel Hunt and Ponga into the game, and his boot would surely boost Edrick Lee’s try tally.
Questions would be asked about his injury history, his age and his ability to direct the team weekly. But surely the prospect of having Shaun Johnson and Kalyn Ponga in the same team would be a tantalising one for any coach, especially one with a forward pack as strong as Newcastle’s.
Mitchell Moses Perhaps the most likely option on this list according to Danny Weidler, who suggested on 100% Footy the idea had been floated behind closed doors.
Moses equalled Adam Reynolds with 20 forced dropouts this season, was second to Nathan Cleary in kick metres and bagged eight try assists and three tries to put himself within striking distance of being one of the NRL’s best halfbacks.
While Moses has knocked on the door of the game’s elite during his 150 games in the NRL, the 26-year-old has never really walked through it. Behind an impressive Parramatta pack and with support from Clint Gutherson and Reed Mahoney, being knocked out of the finals in straight sets has been largely viewed as a failed season.
While Moses carries a lot of that blame, it’s been quickly forgotten that the Eels lost three of their most dynamic outside backs for their knockout semi with Souths.
The Eels’ 2018 wooden spoon is of concern, being it was Moses’ first full season in the blue and gold. There are also question marks over his maturity and leadership in pressure situations. Nonetheless, a big season in 2021 could turn that around, he certainly has the natural ability and competitive drive to be a top halfback, Freddy Fittler saw it back in 2017.
Coming firmly into his prime, Mitchell Moses could be the man to take Newcastle to premiership glory.
It’s worth noting too that Moses has also worked closely with Andrew Johns for a few years now to improve his play, no doubt the eighth immortal would love to see him light up McDonald Jones Stadium.
Kyle Flanagan Another one firmly within the realms of possibility. Laury Daley believes the Roosters are seriously considering bringing Pearce back, with a year left on both players’ contracts a swap could be mutually beneficial.
Most pundits would say Flanagan was solid in 2020 without being electric. But looking at the numbers, and remembering this is a rookie season, Flanagan faired better than most. He equalled Mitchell Pearce with 11 try assists, scored four tries himself and had a higher tackle efficiency in one less game.
Pearce still dominated in running and kicking metres, but Flanagan had a reliable number six in Luke Keary while Pearce had to learn to work with four five-eighths.
Already brimming with talent, Newcastle would end up with a huge chunk of cap space when considering the asking price of both players. On the other hand, how does Nick Politis squeeze in a player reportedly earning close to $1m a season?
Pearce’s age might lower his dollar value a little, but unless Kyle Flanagan has an enormous year in 2021 the current Roosters number seven would still be much cheaper.
But it’s far too early to know Flanagan’s true value, whereas Pearce has runs on the board. He’ll still be in his prime when he plays his 300th game early next year.
This move would be a substantial boost financially for Newcastle, but do they want cap space or a premiership? And does Kalyn Ponga want to wait for a halfback to develop?
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Mitchell Pearce (!) In three seasons Pearce has turned one of the lowliest teams in the history of the NRL into a top-eight side. Sure the Knights underperformed this year, but the losses of Jayden Brailey, Andrew McCullough, Blake Green and Connor Watson haven’t made things easy.
Pearce still sits fifth in the NRL in kick metres, total kicks and line engagements, plus he sits equal second in 40/20s.
But numbers can’t accurately describe what he brings to Newcastle. Along with Kalyn Ponga, he brought hope back to the Hunter and it wasn’t so long ago he put together six man-of-the-match performances and earned himself another Origin berth and a long-coveted series win.
To begin the season his chemistry with Ponga was cutting defences apart. With a one-man bench they held Penrith to a draw, they beat Canberra and the Bunnies and they looked the real deal.
What can’t be blamed on injuries are blowout losses to the Cowboys, Titans and the Warriors. O’Brien would attribute those losses to a poor defensive attitude, and team attitude is certainly one of Mitchell Pearce’s responsibilities.
With a healthy Brailey, Frizell, David Klemmer, Ponga, Best and Daniel Saifiti to name a few, Mitchell Pearce in 2021 will have his best chance to win a premiership since he left the Roosters. Years of bonding on and off the field have this Newcastle team tightly knit, and should Newcastle win it all or come agonisingly close, it stands to reason that Phil Gardner stays true to his word and Mitchell Pearce retires a Newcastle Knight.