Knights seek to help Clifford find form

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Newcastle coach Adam O'Brien says the club is "putting an arm around" out-of-form playmaker Jake Clifford, who has been left out of the line-up to take on former club North Queensland.

Clifford was brutally hooked midway through their 50-2 last-round flogging by Melbourne - their sixth successive loss.

O'Brien has opted for Tex Hoy to replace Clifford against the high-flying Cowboys at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, in a new-look halves pairing with Phoenix Crossland, who comes in for injured halfback Adam Clune.

Clune has both wrist and PCL injuries but the Knights at least have second rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon and winger Dom Young returning to the starting side after knee injuries.

O'Brien said 24-year-old Clifford was low on confidence after the Knights' horror stretch and he benched him for his own good.

"Sometimes you can let guys work their way through ... I think given the position he plays in the team it was a little bit like quicksand for him and it was getting worse," O'Brien said on Tuesday.

"He's just got some challenges around his preparation, mentally for the game and he's pretty down.

"Coaching is knowing when to protect them and that's my job now, to make sure that we're putting an arm around him.

"He's in a difficult spot but he'll come out the other side - he's an integral part of the team.

"We've still got 16 games to go so we need our halves playing well and it's my job to help him."

O'Brien is also working on leadership with superstar fullback Kalyn Ponga, whose captaincy has come under question during the Knights' lean run.

He defended the 24-year-old, whom he said was still learning the role and was missing injured co-captain Jayden Brailey.

"Leadership is an ongoing thing that needs to be practised, just like your passing and kicking," O'Brien said.

"He's a young captain and it's new to him and he's missing a pretty good co-pilot there in Jayden.

"In terms of his leadership in the game I thought he put in a ton of effort.

"He and Inari (Tuala) tried their guts out and that's a form of leadership too."

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