HAVING overseen a series of impressive playoff efforts in recent seasons, Bob Maclot knows 2021 could be his most challenging in years.
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Blake Green’s backflip from an NRL deal at Canterbury to stay with Newcastle appeared to be a recruitment debacle for the Bulldogs but the five-eighth says he simply couldn’t do the job the Belmore club wanted him for.
Green signed with the Bulldogs for one year but just three days later suffered an ACL injury, which would effectively rule him out of the pre-season and early rounds.
A conversation followed with Trent Barrett that made it clear Green’s best option would be to stay at the Knights, if they would have him.
And 75 days later the backflip was announced, which Green describes as an easy fit for everyone.
“It was just unfortunate timing when I did my knee,” he told AAP.
“With Trent going to the club as a new coach, I’ve got a really good relationship with Baz, he needed someone to get his attack on in the pre-season and then start the year and get the club off to a good start.
“Obviously I couldn’t be that person anymore.
“It was an easy conversation to have.
“It was the best thing for both parties.
“Tt worked out really well and I’m happy here and grateful to be staying at Newcastle, and they’ve got someone to start the season off (at the Bulldogs).
“It was just an easy fit.”
Green laughs off any suggestion of hard feelings towards the Bulldogs but the contract confusion was just the cherry on top of a wild year for the former Warriors half.
His family only received all of their belongings from their Auckland home in November, having lived out of a suitcase for six months.
The 34-year-old started the season with the Warriors, moved his family to Australia temporarily, then found out in the media he was unwanted by the club beyond the end of 2020.
Green sought and was granted an immediate release to join the Knights, playing three games before suffering the ACL injury that will delay his 2021 season start, although he’s unsure until when.
“It’s almost been five months but once we get to that six month mark we’ll be able to do some testing and see where I’m at, but it’s been tracking along really well,” he said.
“The medical team at the club have been fantastic.
“The rehab program I’ve been put through has been really professional and I’ve ticked all the boxes so far, I haven’t had any hiccups.
“It’s hard to put a date on it though, the six month mark is when we’ll know more.”
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Storm chief executive Justin Rodski said his club was disappointed but had to do all it could to prepare the side for its premiership defence.
Rodski also said the Knights’ decision will have no impact on the Storm hosting the opening game of the NRL season when South Sydney visit AAMI Park on March 11.
“It’s obviously disappointing the Knights have decided not to travel to Melbourne for this trial – for our fans and for our players,” Rodski said.
“Our members and fans haven’t had the chance to see their team play live in Victoria for over 12 months and we were looking forward to having another great crowd attend Casey Fields next weekend.
“While it is disappointing for our fans in Melbourne, it is important that our players get the chance to prepare as best they can for the season ahead which is why we will travel to Albury for the trial.
“We appreciate the support the Casey Council have provided over the last two years on trial matches and have agreement from the Knights that they will return for the trial in 2022.
“The change also gives us the opportunity to say thanks to the people of Albury after they supported us through the early part of the 2020 season.
“We hope as many members and fans as possible can make it to the game and support us once again.”
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Newcastle fullback Kalyn Ponga is unsure if he’s ready for the NRL captaincy just yet but says he wants to lift the standard of training at the club in 2021.
The Queensland and Australia star was named in a five-man leadership group by coach Adam O’Brien last week, with the skipper or captaincy model to be announced before round one in March.
And while the 22-year-old is viewed as a logical future skipper for the Knights, he believes he’s still a work in progress and hasn’t thought about being a captain.
“A lot of what I bring is on the field,” he said on Wednesday.
“There’s probably a lot of areas off the field I can work on around training standards and the way we perform, which is where my leadership comes in.
“I don’t know who will captain the side … but I want to be a leader, it’s something that I’m working on.
“Leadership skills are something that can evolve and I’m just happy to be in the leadership group and we’re all different in what we can bring to the team.”
Jayden Brailey, Mitch Barnett, Blake Green and Daniel Saifiti were also named and there has been suggestions the captaincy may be shared by all five across the season.
Whatever O’Brien decides, he has the backing of Mitchell Pearce.
The former skipper stepped down from the role earlier this month following a texting scandal with a female staff member at the club.
And while he’ll be calling the shots on the field, the off-field pressures of a captain will fall to one of his five teammates – all of whom has his endorsement.
“(Saifiti) was a real standout in Origin this year, watching from the sideline, I know what sort of bloke he is but as a fan, watching him in the Origin he had a real presence out there,” Pearce said.
“He’s a real alpha male within our group and being only 24, he’s only going to develop with his maturity throughout the years.
“Mitch Barnett as well, obviously Greeny has been great for the group.
“He’s an old, wise head who’s played a lot of footy.
“He’s got a very mature footy brain and a good club man.
“Jayden Brailey is a future skipper as well, a good clubman. It’s a really good opportunity now for KP to take that next level with his voice as well.”
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Kalyn Ponga could be the man to replace dethroned captain Mitchell Pearce at Newcastle after the Knights fullback was named among a five-man leadership group.
Veteran playmaker Pearce stood down as skipper earlier this month after a text messaging scandal involving an employee at the NRL club.
Coach Adam O’Brien had already planned to introduce a leadership group, which was announced on Saturday and featured Ponga, forward Mitch Barnett, NSW Origin front rower Daniel Saifiti, veteran five-eighth Blake Green and hooker Jayden Brailey.
The captain will come from that group and be named in March.
Queensland Origin fullback Ponga signed a new, rich contract extension at the Knights last year, revealing a desire to win the city’s third NRL title as a major driver in the decision.
Pearce has promised to “take steps to address these issues” but said it was in the club’s best interests for him to step down as captain.
“I love this club and I love my family and I’ve committed to working as hard as I can to be the best man I can be both on and off the field,” he said earlier this month.
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The Newcastle Knights have unveiled a five-man leadership group as the club prepares for the 2021 season following Mitchell Pearce’s decision to step down as captain.
The Knights announced on Saturday that Mitch Barnett, Kalyn Ponga, Daniel Saifiti, Blake Green and Jayden Brailey will form part of the group.
The club said the players were chosen after an “extensive selection process” and that all five will lead “both on and off the field throughout 2021”.
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The Knights said that the decision to select a club captain and on-field captain would be made in the coming weeks.
It comes after Pearce signalled his intention to quit as Knights captain following an incident in his personal life.
Pearce’s 150-person wedding was called off after a text exchange with a female Knights employee was revealed.
Another potential Storm hooker?
The former NSW halfback said the wedding had been simply postponed, although a Daily Telegraph report suggested teammates at Newcastle were furious that Pearce had been sending inappropriate texts to a young female colleague.
The colleague’s partner is thought to be good friends with teammate Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
“For me it’s been a traumatic few weeks for my personal life and those I love,” Pearce said when he stood down earlier this month.
“Unfortunately my actions have impacted the team and more importantly the people I have closest to me, Kristin and my family.
Plenty of competition for spots at Eels
“I’m taking steps now to address these issues and I feel it would be in the best interests of the club for me to step down as captain this season.”
“I love this club and I love my family and I’m committed to working as hard as I can to be the best man I can be both on an off the field.
“I appreciate a bit of respect moving forward and some time to get back to training.”
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The Knights are training in Tamworth and O’Brien said the time away as a group had been a boost.
“Our meetings at night are crucial to connect the team up with some goal setting,” O’Brien said. “Irrelevant of what sort of happened over Christmas, it’s always a good time to get the team away and connected.”
The camp will also be a chance for O’Brien to choose a new captain. David Klemmer is the hot favourite to take the job.
O’Brien said the Tamworth camp was “part of the process” of finding the most suitable player.
“It’ll be a few weeks away yet [a decision on the captaincy], I want to go through a thorough process,” he said.
“I didn’t want the distraction to fasten that process up. I believe that it’s the right process, even before Mitchell decided to stand down, so I’ll continue on that path.”
The focus has turned to Ponga, who is in doubt for the start of the season due to a shoulder injury.
Ponga had a shoulder reconstruction in October 2020 after playing through a labrum tear late in the season. The injury has a three- to six-month recovery time.
O’Brien said Ponga was working “extremely hard” to get fit and had a consultancy last week with a specialist.
“He’s more than on track,” the coach said. “We just want to continually see progress every day. And that’s what we’re getting.”
Ponga is an unlikely starter for the 2021 season with no “definitive date” for his return.
“We don’t expect it to be too long into the season,” O’Brien said. “But I’m not going to put pressure on both staff and Kalyn by naming a date just yet.”
Ponga’s no.1 jersey will likely be replaced by 21-year-old Tex Hoy.
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Sprinting into position, Wellington’s Logan van Beek threw his body toward the ball and stuck out a hopeful hand.
It had been struck cleanly off the bat of the Northern Knights’ No 7 Brett Hampton, and the chances of van Beek claiming the catch were slim.
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But it was one of those days for the Wellington Firebirds in their T20 clash. Van Beek, fielding on the boundary at cow corner, ran full pelt, threw his hand out, and the ball stuck, leaving commentators, fans and the fielder in disbelief.
“I just somehow pulled it off. I’m not sure how it happened, but it happened,” van Beek said.
“My tactic is, once I see it, I just put my head down and run as fast as I can, then it’s just about giving it a chance … you just have to go for it.”
Former Black Cap Craig Cumming called the catch “as good as you will see”, while several, including Canterbury’s most notable sports broadcaster Elliott Smith, drew comparisons to Mayu Pasupati’s famous catch at the same ground 21 years ago.
Another stunned TV commentator added: “What is going on out there?
“Unbelievable catch, Logan van Beek. I don’t think he can believe that himself.
Wellington’s 80-run Super Smash win saw nearly everything go to plan. Sure, they lost the toss and were sent into bat by the visiting Knights side, but that was about the only area of the game they lost.
Wellington got off to a dream start with the bat as opening batsmen Finn Allen and Devon Conway took to the attack. Allen, playing the dominant role at the crease, made it look relatively easy to maintain a high run-rate — needing just 24 deliveries to bring up his 50.
Allen and Conway brought up their 100-run partnership in the ninth over, and added a further 17 runs before Allen was bowled by Hampton on 79.
The visitors did well to stem the flow of runs after breaking up the opening partnership, with only Allen, Conway (45) and Tom Blundell (22) scoring more than 20 as Wellington were pegged back slightly, to 7/185 from their 20 overs.
While they would have liked to post a higher total after such a strong start, they had their tails up immediately in their defence when Hamish Bennett cleaned up Katene Clarke with a slower ball that tailed into off stump with just the second ball of the innings.
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And until lewd texts sent to a club employee were later uncovered by the staffer’s furious partner, and subsequently leaked just after Christmas Day, it appeared as though Pearce had shaken his other vice: the “playboy” approach that was at the centre of most of the trouble he ran into while plying his trade in Bondi.
The overwhelming emotions of many people that agreed to speak to The Sun-Herald, on the condition of anonymity, were a mix of sadness for Pearce and disappointment that the 31-year-old should know better.
“The first thing I thought when someone sent me the story was, ‘F—, Pearcey,” one former teammate said. “It’s just disappointing, because he’s a good bloke that we all want to see do well.
“Watching him the night he was called in to do a job for NSW in the Origin decider [in 2019], and knowing what he went through [the pressure to deliver] at the Roosters, I was so happy for him. But he makes life hard for himself.”
It doesn’t take a psychology degree to see Pearce is barely coping with the pressure caused by the texting saga, which has engulfed the Knights in the past fortnight.
He was emotional as he announced his resignation from the captaincy on Thursday. He struggled to hold back tears. He described the situation – his lavish Byron Bay wedding to Kristin Scott was postponed after the story became public – as “traumatic”.
“It’s been a traumatic few weeks for my personal life and those I love,” Pearce said. “Unfortunately, my actions have impacted the team and, more importantly, the people I have closest to me, Kristin and my family.”
Unfortunately for Pearce, those closest to him have heard it all before.
His most infamous off-field incident – when footage of the halfback pretending to have sex with a dog during a drinking session on Australia Day in 2016 was sold to media outlets – was one of those instances. It caused Pearce to seek help at a rehabilitation facility in Thailand.
Upon his return to Australia, Pearce was contrite and emotional, pledging to do, and be, better.
“At this point in time, I am probably the worst role model in sport,” Pearce said at the time. “That is something I have come back a lot clearer about. There has never been any intentional disrespect, but I didn’t think about that. I was just totally selfish. I need to take responsibility, which is something I have always shied away from.
“People are probably going to be waiting for something else, but it is up to me now. It is my life at the end of the day and I have got to do it for myself and for the people I care about.”
Two parts of those comments stand out.
Firstly, that Pearce must take responsibility for his actions – something he admits he lacked prior to the video of his embarrassing drunken antics on Australia Day.
Sources have told The Sun-Herald that was not the case when Pearce heard the texting scandal was about to become public. He was more concerned about the story being leaked, furious someone had betrayed his trust.
‘It is up to me now. It is my life at the end of the day and I have got to do it for myself and for the people I care about.’
Mitchell Pearce in 2016
His comments to News Corp were indicative of that.
“It’s COVID mate … and it’s private,” Pearce said. “We’re sorting things out. It’s a really stressful time for us. It’s our business, no one else’s.”
Once again, those close to Pearce have heard that before.
After another major off-field scandal in 2014 – when he was arrested in Kings Cross after refusing to leave popular nightclub Beach Haus – the playmaker was more concerned about the impact the incident would have on his relationship with Phoebe Carpenter, given he was asked to leave after making “advances” to another woman.
Carpenter stuck by Pearce when he was photographed with Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts and welcomed a Playboy model into the Coogee Crowne Plaza prior to the 2012 Origin decider, but they split three years later.
Pearce isn’t the first star Newcastle No.7 to have off-field problems. But Andrew Johns thrived when not all was well away from the game.
Pearce is the opposite. He needs to be healthy on the field and happy off the field to produce his best. The fact he has brought so much of the unfortunate spotlight on himself has hindered his undeniable talent.
In a contract year, Pearce will now have to balance the process of mending his relationship with Scott and steering the Knights to a second consecutive finals appearance.
That’s a fair bit on his plate, even without the pressure of the captaincy.
One of Pearce’s former coaches at the Roosters, Brian Smith, summed up well the battle some players face.
Asked about Todd Carney’s stellar performance in his debut season for the glamour club in 2010 after a year spent in NRL exile playing bush footy, Smith didn’t miss a beat.
“Now isn’t the problem,” Smith said. “It’s what happens in a few weeks or months, when he has injury or is struggling with form. Or the off-season. That’s what matters most.”
The same can be said of Pearce.
If he can mend his relationship with Scott and remain on the straight and narrow, the roller coaster that has been his career may reach another high.
The Knights may even win their first play-off game since the preliminary final in 2013. If they do, Pearce will undoubtedly be handsomely rewarded in what could be his final contract. But if all is not well at home, those close to Pearce are concerned.
They’ve seen this movie before.
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The Knights improved last season to make the finals after a difficult period in the club’s history. They were knocked out in the first week by South Sydney and have been expected to build on that effort in 2021.
But that will hinge on a united group, with O’Brien assuring fans there would be no fractures behind closed doors despite a pre-season of unwanted drama.
“The group is not divided,” O’Brien said. “If anything, Tuesday served as probably galvanising them a little bit. They understand that the team is like a family. They understand that family members make mistakes.
“We’re a good family. You don’t turn your back on family members, you support them. That’s what the team spoke about.
“There was genuine remorse in that meeting and I think the players could see that clearly that there was a guy standing up there that was genuinely owning a mistake … a big mistake that’s hurt some people.
“That fact was clear was to the playing group. I think that’s what galvanised the group. They realised they need to get around a family member.”
Pearce, speaking alongside O’Brien, described the festive season as a “traumatic few weeks for my personal life and those I love” but did not take questions after reading a short statement.
“Unfortunately, my actions have impacted the team and more importantly the people I have closest to me — Kristin and my family,” he said.
“I’m taking steps now to address these issues and I feel it would be in the best interest of the club to step down as captain for this season.
“I love this club and I love my family and I’m committed to working as hard as I can to be the best man I can be, both on and off the field.
“I’d appreciate some respect moving forward and a bit of time to get back to training.”
O’Brien said the decision was Pearce’s alone and they would now seek to move forward and put the matter in the past.
“Mitch came to it himself and I support him in it,” he said.
“We’ve had some productive conversations earlier this week but I’m confident this won’t have an impact on our season.”
“It won’t be used as motivation and it won’t be used as an excuse, we’ll get on with it as professionals.”
Pearce was set to be married in Byron Bay at the end of December and, at the time, attributed the postponement to the unfolding COVID scenario within NSW.
Some 150 guests were due to attend and a number were informed as late as Christmas Eve that the nuptials were no longer to take place. Kieran Foran was among those on the invite list.
The timing isn’t ideal for the 31-year-old Pearce, who is off contract at the end of this season and in the midst of trying to extend his deal at the club. He insists he can play for another five years but there is little chance of an extension on his current $1m pay packet, with the club said to have offered a two-year deal at half that amount per season.
He’s no stranger to pre-season controversy, having spent a month in a Thai rehab clinic in 2016 after the infamous Austalia Day video in which he simulated a sex act with a dog. He was fined $125,000 and suspended for eight games.
Since then, he has found a home at the Knights and will now be desperate to produce for them on the field after providing an unwanted pre-season hurdle for a team with top-four aspirations.
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James Polson is a sports desk editor with The Sydney Morning Herald.
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