Knights want mental edge for NRL success

Newcastle's Adam O'Brien (l) has been working on giving the under-performing NRL team a mental edge.
Newcastle's Adam O'Brien (l) has been working on giving the under-performing NRL team a mental edge.

No hands on hips, no complaints, no signs of weakness.

That's life under Newcastle coach Adam O'Brien, who intends to drive out any signs of defeat in 2020 from this underperforming NRL side.

Since the former Melbourne and Sydney assistant took over in November, the players have been surprised with unscheduled drills and tested mentally and physically while their body language is noted and corrected.

O'Brien intends to avoid a mid-season slump and subsequent slide into the bottom half of the ladder that has been the trend of the past few years despite the exciting talent at their disposal.

A lack of mental strength and resilience has been to blame.

Burned by their 11th-place finish in 2019, Knights captain Mitchell Pearce is careful not to over-promise and under-deliver as the season nears.

However, the 30-year-old halfback knows as well as anyone that ridding a team of signs of defeat is the easiest way to win.

"You can run for hours but it's a matter of training with intensity and handling pressure and calming the mind down, turning up day in and day out and doing the same thing over and over again," he told AAP.

"That's what brings consistency, and that's what good coaches drill into their teams. I've experienced that at the Roosters.

"Sides like Melbourne and the Roosters don't just turn up and defend like that because they've got good players, they defend like that because it becomes ingrained in their walls. It's a culture thing. It's resilience. You work hard, you play tough and you don't give in.

"I've experienced that at the Chooks and it gets contagious. I know Adam has brought a lot of that to us. He wants us to be a really strong defensive side more than anything.

"That's what we're preparing for but if we're not winning it won't mean anything."

Aside from the new training standard under a rookie mentor, the biggest change in the Hunter this season is the addition of former Cronulla hooker Jayden Brailey, who replaces Danny Levi.

Pearce says the 23-year-old Brailey is the key to unlocking the Knights' electric attack.

"He'll be one of the signings of the year for us if we can reach our potential this year," Pearce said.

"He's tough and he's a really good ball player. He's helping my game at training and taking some heat off with the forwards which frees my game up so I don't have to organise all the time.

"He's low maintenance, he's got no ego and he works hard. He loves his footy and he's a tough kid. He's the sort of guy you want to play for.

"The best hookers in the game are that type of character, they just get in there, get their work done and work hard for their mates and defend. With the ball he's got a calm head. He's just natural."

As good as he is, Brailey creates something of a welcome selection headache for O'Brien.

Utilities Kurt Mann and Connor Watson need to be squeezed into the squad, likely at five-eighth and No.14 respectively, while young halves Mason Lino and Phoenix Crossland are pressing their claims and will need to be managed.

Among the litany of outside backs, rising star Bradman Best is expected to start the season on the wing, while Tex Hoy, Starford To'a and former Brisbane centre Gehemat Shibasaki bide their time.

But under the new regime in Newcastle, if they don't have the right attitude they won't get a look in.

"Ads has stripped it back to what this community and this culture has been about for a long time and we need to rediscover that," Pearce said.

"We need to deliver for the town and it starts with hard work and resilience."

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2019 - 11th 2018 - 11th, 2017 - 16th

Coach: Adam O'Brien

Captain: Mitchell Pearce

Key gains: Jayden Brailey (Sharks)

Key losses: Jesse Ramien (Sharks), Danny Levi (Sea Eagles), Jamie Buhrer (retired)

Best team: 1 Kalyn Ponga, 2 Bradman Best, 3 Tautau Moga, 4Hymel Hunt, 5 Edrick Lee, 6 Kurt Mann, 7 Mitchell Pearce, 8 David Klemmer, 9 Jayden Brailey, 10 Daniel Saifiti, 11 Lachlan Fitzgibbon, 12 Mitch Barnett, 13 Tim Glasby, 14 Connor Watson, 15 Aidan Guerra, 16 Sione Mata'utia, 17 Pasami Saulo

Predicted finish: 8th

Australian Associated Press