Danny Levi will get first crack at the Knights' No.9 jersey.
Danny Levi will get first crack at the Knights' No.9 jersey. Ashley Feder

Levi to lead way for Knights

WHEN talking about the Knights, the name on everybody's lips this pre-season has been Kalyn Ponga.

After making one of the most impressive State of Origin debuts in history last year, the freakish Queensland and Newcastle superstar is widely tipped as the frontrunner for the Dally M Medal this season.

Betting agency Ladbrokes has him an $8 favourite - $3 shorter than the next in the betting - before a pass is thrown in 2019.

But Newcastle legend Danny Buderus has his money on one of the club's underrated stars to steal the show in the Steel City.

The former Knights captain is backing young hooker Danny Levi to develop his own legacy - and become the first since Buderus's retirement in 2013 to truly make the No.9 jersey his own.

With more than 66 games in the top grade under his belt, it is hard to believe Levi is still only 23.

The workhorse dummy-half broke into the NRL almost four years ago after back-to-back selections in the NYC under-20 team of the year, but played second fiddle to former Storm utility Slade Griffin for most of 2018.

Kalyn Ponga has been moved back to fullback. (AAP Image/Darren Pateman)
Kalyn Ponga is a superstar in the making. DARREN PATEMAN

Buderus said it was time for Levi to be the game-breaker.

"Danny is at a time now in his career where he will be expected to be really good and really consistent most weeks," Buderus said.

"While he has improvement to make in a lot of areas, you know he is still a great player in a lot of others.

"He is in for a big year - he has a big forward pack that will actually go forward in front of him. He has a great halfback in Mitchell Pearce and another freakish half on the other side in Kalyn Ponga.

"They are going to be wanting the ball a lot, but at the same time a lot of defences will maybe take their eye off him."

Levi requested a release midway through last season, after starting the year in reserve grade, but decided to tough it out following a long conversation with coach Nathan Brown and Buderus.

The pair assured him he was in the club's plans and within weeks he was back in the top grade, and stayed there.

Buderus has been working closely with the young dummy-half, readying him to take the reins at the Knights.

Danny Levi passes the ball during the Newcastle Knights training session at Balance Field in Mayfield, Newcastle, Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (AAP Image/Darren Pateman) NO ARCHIVING
Levi is sharp out of dummy-half. DARREN PATEMAN

"I have done a lot of work with Danny over the years going back to when I was still there," said Buderus, who played a total of 257 games for the Knights in his stints at the club either side of his years at the Leeds Rhinos from 2009-11.

"That was my job in my final years, to look after the young hookers coming through. Danny was obviously a part of that.

"He is a great kid and he is getting everybody to follow him. For his age he is probably not a senior player, but in around the group he would be feeling right up there as one of the leaders ... he is an out-and-out dummy-half."

Buderus said the key to unlocking Levi's potential came when the Knights secured the services of NSW Origin metre-eater David Klemmer, who came across from the Bulldogs on a five-year-deal believed to be worth about $4.3million.

David Klemmer of the Knights is tackled during training at Balance field in Newcastle, Tuesday, February 26, 2019. (AAP Image/Darren Pateman) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
David Klemmer will add some punch to the Knights' pack. DARREN PATEMAN

His recruitment has already been touted as the buy of the season and Buderus believes it is one that will be felt right across the team.

"I think defensively the amount of metres the club conceded last year was a big issue and that takes guys like Ponga and Danny right out of the game," he said.

"Hopefully we have been able to eradicate that issue this year. Obviously, having David Klemmer in the side will help that.

"It isn't too often Dave is on the back foot. He is a big plus and a big piece of the puzzle. We needed an elite front-rower, and the best thing is he is happy.

"He is enjoying his football and that will come out in the season."

The Knights finished in 11th spot last season despite winning five of their first eight games.

The pressure is on Brown to reap the rewards after five years at the helm, and his close mate believes consistency is the answer.

"Their good is going to be very good, and then it's about how far do they drop away when they're not on," Buderus said.

"You see it with the good teams like your Melbourne and Sydney, when they are off they are not off by very much. I think that is the challenge for Newcastle."

The Knights open their campaign at home against Cronulla at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.