The final piece in the Newcastle puzzle

Mitchell Pearce has praised new recruit Jake Clifford’s instant impact at the Knights and hopes a fully fit spine can revive their season as they look to find some continuity in the key positions.

The Knights haven’t been able to field their first-choice spine since round 2 last year when they won their first two matches before Jayden Brailey suffered a season-ending knee injury.

They’ve chopped and changed their fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker over the past 12 months, but there’s every chance coach Adam O’Brien will name a side next week that features Pearce, Brailey, Clifford and the returning Kalyn Ponga.

Newcastle started this year with plenty of optimism but lost Pearce in round 4 to a serious pec injury. Their 2-2 start was quickly forgotten as they managed just three wins from their next 10 matches, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Jake Clifford has been welcomed by the Knights as a key piece in their spine. Picture: Ian Hitchcock/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

Pearce returned last week to partner mid-season recruit Clifford, and Ponga is expected back from a groin injury for the round 16 game at home against his former side the Cowboys.

“I thought it was good for the conditions,” the Knights halfback said after he and Jake Clifford led the Knights to a 10-6 win over the Warriors in wet and wild conditions last Saturday.

“I thought we combined with nice balance, and there’s a lot to build on. I think with a dry track and with Kalyn coming back, I really believe we can start to build some nice combinations.

“It’d be nice to get a nice 10 weeks with us together to see what we can produce because I believe in the combinations.

“It’s really great to get ‘Cliff’ here because he’s a really smart footy brain. He loves his footy and he’s got a good temperament. He’s one of the good halves coming through, and he’s really making the spot his own this year.

Mitchell Pearce says the Knights can still make a run for the top eight. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

“He’s come to us playing really good footy, and his form at the Cowboys was a real standout in the whole competition. I’m just glad that we’ve got him, and we’ll keep working hard.”

The Knights sit one win outside the top eight but only play three teams in the top half of the ladder in the run home to the finals.

Given how tight the race is for the final two spots in the eight, the Knights will fancy their chances of leapfrogging a few of the sides ahead of them, but a lot will rest on whether they can keep their key quartet on the field.

Pearce looked solid in his return and played a hand in both of the tries less than three months after he suffered a pec injury while trying to make a tackle against the Dragons.

“I was pretty emotional when it happened,” he reflected.

“I was ready for a big year, but it is what it is. I’m back now and I have an opportunity to finish the year as well as we can. We’ve still got a chance to get where we want to, so it’s game on.”

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