WAYNE BENNETT sprang a double surprise at Newcastle's season launch yesterday, naming his opening-round team four days prematurely and leaving out Kiwi international Junior Sa'u.
Sa'u is a victim of Bennett's recruitment drive, with the arrival of Darius Boyd and Timana Tahu pushing the Kiwi out of the Knights' back line for the round-one showdown against St George Illawarra on Thursday night.
Bennett has opted to play Wes Naiqama and Tahu in the centres ahead of Sa'u, with Akuila Uate and James McManus named on the wing and Boyd at fullback.
Neville Costigan, who played with Boyd at Brisbane and the Dragons, said his presence would be invaluable to the outside backs.
''His talk has helped us, especially in the trials,'' he said. ''Last year, hardly any of the boys spoke on the field. Because he's getting a bit of a role as a senior player and he's playing rep footy, he's taught the backs heaps here already.''
Sa'u's omission is the only shock in a team that many tip to finish in the top four this season, with skipper Kurt Gidley at five-eighth.
Former Dragon turned Knight Adam Cuthbertson will partner fellow newcomer Kade Snowden in the front row, while Costigan has been given first crack at lock.
Bennett has handed Alex McKinnon, who also joined from the Dragons in the off-season, a spot on the bench alongside Matt Hilder, Richie Fa'aoso and Joel Edwards.
Dragons coach Steve Price is yet to finalise his team for the match at Hunter Stadium, but the Herald understands Mitch Rein has his nose in front in the battle for the hooker position.
The 21-year-old is in line to start the year ahead of Kiwi international Nathan Fien and Cameron King, leaving Fien and King in a battle for the final bench position.
''There won't be room for three of them,'' lock Dean Young said.
Rein's pre-season form and his impressive debut season last year has him in front but he is reluctant to get ahead of himself.
He did his chances of starting the season at hooker no harm in last week's Charity Shield victory over South Sydney, but he insists it is not a foregone conclusion.
''It was good to start in the Charity Shield,'' Rein said. ''I started in a few games last year but I've never actually worn the No.9 so it was good for a change. The competition … keeps all of us on our toes.
''Me and Kingy have learnt a lot from Fiensy and that won't stop. At training he takes us aside and helps us improve our game.''
Newcastle team: Darius Boyd, James McManus, Wes Naiqama, Timana Tahu, Akuila Uate, Kurt Gidley, Jarrod Mullen, Kade Snowden, Danny Buderus, Adam Cuthbertson, Chris Houston, Zeb Taia, Neville Costigan. Interchange: Matt Hilder, Richie Fa'aoso, Joel Edwards, Alex McKinnon.