Just when Newcastle hoped their NRL pre-season from hell couldn’t get any worse, five-eighth Jarrod Mullen suffered what appeared to be a catastrophic injury at the Auckland Nines.
After initial fears Mullen had ripped his hamstring from the bone and would spend most of the season on the sideline, he’s been told it’s a partial tear and he’ll miss around 10 weeks.
That counts as “good” news at Newcastle following an offseason which included a drink-driving charge for Willie Mason and the jailing of new prop Russell Packer for assault.
But the 26-year-old Mullen was a key figure in the Knights’ unlikely charge to the preliminary final last year and his early absence still leaves a big hole in their line-up for the first third of the season.
It’s a problem coach Wayne Bennett is wrestling with as he decides who to play in the halves beside Tyrone Roberts.
Utility Kurt Gidley and fullback Darius Boyd are both candidates, but the two veterans already have key roles elsewhere.
Gidley had been slated to fill the hooking role left vacant by the retired Danny Buderus, while moving Boyd from fullback would create a weakness there.
Shifting captain Gidley, a capable playmaker, would be the most obvious choice but that would leave quite a responsibility on the shoulders of young No.9 Adam Clydsdale who has been earmarked as the long-term replacement for Buderus but has played just two NRL games.
Either way, Gidley shapes as a key player for the Knights as they attempt to build on the momentum that took them to last year’s preliminary final, before they were stopped in their tracks by the Sydney Roosters.
The 12-time NSW State of Origin representative has played just 19 games in the past two seasons during which he suffered shoulder, foot and ankle problems.
Bennett was happy to see Gidley make his return in the Knights’ final trial, a 34-14 win over Canberra.
“It is wonderful,” the supercoach said. “I was really pleased for him.
“He thought he was on track to start the season, but he got ahead of himself a bit.
“We didn’t want to give him too much time and to just get a little bit of confidence for him so he is ready to start the season.”
Bennett did concede though he has some tough decisions to make ahead of the Knights’ season opener against Penrith away on Saturday, March 8.
He tried Boyd in the playmaker role in the trial and was not disappointed.
“It’s a big decision that we’ve got to make, so I’m not sure where we are going with that,” Bennett said of the vacant No.6 jersey.
“I thought Darius was pretty confident.
“It’s a new challenge for him and he is very much supportive of what we were doing.”
Mason said the troubling off-season was not symbolic of a toxic culture at the club.
“The Knights haven’t been getting the best media this pre-season but the culture at the club is outstanding,” he said.
Premierships: 2 – 1997, 2001
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – preliminary finalists, 2012 – 12th, 2011 – 8th
Coach: Wayne Bennett
Captain: Kurt Gidley
Gains: Michael Dobson (Hull KR), Clint Newton (Panthers)
Losses: Danny Buderus (retired), Neville Costigan (Hull KR), Craig Gower (retired), Siuatonga Likiliki (Titans), Peter Mata’utia (Dragons), Kevin Naiqama (Panthers), Anthony Quinn (retired), Will Smith (Panthers)
Strength: Wayne Bennett. His record speaks for itself.
Weakness: The Knights were light up front last season and with key off season signing Russell Packer jailed for assault they look to be so again in 2014.
Money Man: With the retirement of Danny Buderus, Kurt Gidley is the fulcrum of the Knights side. If he can bounce back from his injuries successfully Newcastle will have a good year.
One to watch: Joey Leilua has had his off-field issues but the hard-running centre can be a game-breaker on his day.
Best team: Darius Boyd, James McManus, Dane Gagai, Joey Leilua, Akuila Uate, Jarrod Mullen, Tyrone Roberts, Kade Snowden, Kurt Gidley, Willie Mason, Beau Scott, Robbie Rochow, Jeremy Smith. Interchange: Adam Clydsdale, Chris Houston, Alex McKinnon, Korbin Sims
Predicted finish: 10th