With the Auckland Nines only a month away, first-year Newcastle coach Nathan Brown is still looking for players to add to this year's NRL roster.
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Led by the departure of long-time servant and captain Kurt Gidley, the wooden spooners have lost over 1000 games of experience over the summer and replaced them with scant talent in return.
Their one major signing, NSW State of Origin halfback Trent Hodkinson, hasn't even trained with his new teammates and is rated a 50-50 prospect of playing in next month's All Stars match.
The ex-Canterbury No.7 has spent the entire pre-season on the shelf as he recovers from a wrist injury. "He's still a bit off yet. He's got to go to the specialist in about a week or so, and then we'll know a little bit more," Brown said upon the team's return to training on Monday.
Hodkinson isn't expected to be back on the paddock for another fortnight, placing doubt on his availability for Wayne Bennett's World All Stars in Brisbane on February 6.
"I'd say 50-50. He's some chance. I'd think he'd like to play in it and if he's fully fit, we'd like him to play. We won't know until he sees the specialist, to be honest," Brown said.
The returning NRL coach said he would use the upcoming Nines tournament and the club's lone selection trial against Canberra in Orange to select what he described as the most unknown starting 17 in the league. "There's going to be some players in there who we'd all recognise is going to be in the team, but there's a fair number of spots up for grabs due to suspensions and a lot of older players going," he said.
Gone are veteran quartet Gidley, Chris Houston, Tyrone Roberts and Beau Scott.
In their place are Hodkinson, former Canterbury prop Mickey Paea, and a handful of fringe players. "The way the guys train over the next 4-5 weeks and how some of them trial in that game against Canberra is going to tell us a big story," said Brown, who said speed demon Jake Mamo has been training at fullback. "The reality is we only brought in two players with any real experience and probably let 6-7 guys with a lot of experience go. A lot of it is unknown at the moment."
Asked what kind of positions required urgent filling, Brown said: "Forwards, outside backs. One of each. At the moment financially we're not in a great spot to do anything but things may change down the track.
"I'd be lying if I said we weren't looking at one or two players."
Brown also said the long-term future of one-time NSW Origin winger James McManus remains up in the air, while the club may also consider applying for special dispensation to play Sione Mata'utia in the Nines.