I awoke to a text message yesterday morning from one of my spies that there was a “notable absence” as the Knights returned to training ahead of the 2021 NRL season.
Following a hugely public postponing of his wedding, reports he was set to be stripped of the club captaincy, rumours of a falling out with Lachlan Fitzgibbon, and even chat that he may not play another game in the red and blue, Mitchell Pearce was nowhere to be seen as Newcastle got back to business after the Christmas break.
(FYI, my spy’s other hot take was that “Tyson Frizzel is a unit” and at this point I should clarify that my cloak-and-dagger agent is actually just a mate who trains at Balance Mayfield gym, where the Knights get their sweat on, and happened to be there when the boys turned up for training.)
Pearce being on the out is a story that has done the rounds for a few weeks but I’ve left it be because it’s hard to put too much store in whispers.
There’s little to write in rugby league over the Christmas period so, in the mad scramble for content, a mountain can easily be made of a molehill.
With Pearce maintaining the wedding was postponed due to COVID-19, and Fitzgibbon, coach Adam O’Brien and CEO Phil Gardner all having made no comment, the stories getting a run were primarily speculation or started with the words “my mail says”, rather than “(insert name of actual, credible source) says”.
Pearce’s wedding had been postponed, that’s really all we knew for sure, with the club’s official line simply being that the issue is “a private matter that stays between the two individuals”.
Maybe mountain, maybe molehill. Hard to say, really.
But when your club captain doesn’t rock up to the first day of training, it’s likely the issue we’re dealing with was created by seismic activity rather than a burrowing mammal.
That was essentially confirmed by general manager of football Danny Buderus on Monday afternoon, as he fronted the media and talked about “standards” and “culture” with regards to Pearce.
I won’t rehash what Pearce is rumoured to have done – and, for the record, my intention with what follows is not to be brazen and callous by simply discussing Pearce and trust with his teammates, merely to keep other people who are hurting out of this particular discussion.
But if the stories are accurate – and they’ve been reported by just about every major media outlet – it’s understandable if Pearce is on the outer with some of his teammates.
The question for O’Brien is: what’s the next logical step?
A fractured playing group won’t make the finals, but then it’s pretty bloody hard to finish the year in the top eight without a decent halfback – and expectations in the Hunter this season are top four.
While Pearce had a quiet 2020, it’s hard to see how Newcastle would have made the eight had he been at a different club. He may have missed a stack of tackles and been found wanting as a game manager, but he still brought precious experience and leadership.
So if Newcastle decide both parties are better off going their separate ways before Round 1, Pearce would likely come out the ‘winner’. As a premiership and Origin-winning halfback with almost 300 first-grade games to his name, he’d get a start at just about any other club, and the Knights would almost certainly have to pay him a significant portion of his wage.
As for who would wear the No.7 jersey Andrew Johns made famous? There’s talk of Gareth Widdop being keen to play in the NRL again, but how financially viable is it to pay Warrington a transfer fee for a halfback who would replace a guy you’re also paying to play for someone else?
Far more likely would be the Knights needing Tex Hoy, Phoneix Crossland, Kurt Mann or Connor Watson to seriously step up in the halves until Blake Green returns from injury and takes ownership of the side.
That’s a big ask for all involved, including Green.
Of course, there’s always the grubby answer, which is to solve your problem by cutting the ‘other guy’ – namely, Fitzgibbon.
I’m not at all suggesting it might happen in Newcastle, merely pointing out that sometimes clubs decide it’s easier to back the guy who is clearly in the wrong but is harder to get rid of – think Neil Henry and Jarryd Hayne at the Gold Coast.
And on the face of it, a bench forward on a few hundred grand is a lot easier to push out the door than your million-dollar halfback and captain.
However, alongside the fact he’s done absolutely nothing wrong, Lachie Fitz is in no danger of the club deciding he’s expendable over this issue.
The most precious piece of real estate on an NRL club’s jumper is the front-of-jersey position, which since 2017 for the Knights has featured a bottle green strip with the letters n-i-b.
It’s a beautiful, logical fit that nib is the club’s major sponsor, given the healthcare fund essentially began its operations opposite the Knights’ Mayfield base – selling premiums in the carpark of the then-thriving BHP steelworks circa 1952.
Newcastle Industrial Benefits have gone from strength to strength since their humble beginnings as the health insurer of choice for the city’s steelworkers, with revenue of over $2.5 billion in their most recent annual report and close to 2 million customers.
And heading this Newcastle success story since 2002 has been chief executive officer and managing director Mark Fitzgibbon – or, as Lachlan Fitzgibbon calls him, ‘Dad’.
Now I’m not saying there’s any nepotism going on, as Lachie Fitz was playing first grade since 2015, but when you add in the fact that Lachie also calls Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon ‘Uncle Joel’ – oh, and that Joel succeeded his father, Eric Fitzgibbon, in that seat – you get a picture of Novocastrian royalty.
I believe Phil Gardner is a good man, Adam O’Brien is a young Craig Bellamy – as Aussie, salt of the earth as they come – and Danny Buderus has the integrity of, well, Danny Buderus, which is why he’s the only man more deserving than Joey of having the club’s annual best and fairest medal named after him. I trust the bosses of the club to do the right thing.
This little detour is just an illustration of the fact that even though Mitchell Pearce’s dad is a rugby league legend who sits on the ARL Commission, Lachie’s dad is the boss of the club’s major sponsor and his uncle is in his 25th year as the MP for a huge portion of our club’s catchment area.
Do I need to tell you who is the Neil Henry of that scenario?
All of which still leaves O’Brien with the question of what’s to be done with Pearce. Keep him and risk a fractured playing group and write off another season, or sack him and risk an inexperienced halfback being unable to do the job and thus write off another season?
The hope would be that the red and blue don’t see it as black and white. That between now and March, Pearce can earn back the trust of his teammates to the point that this season can still be a success.
That would be a more grown-up outcome than just sacking people.
I guess in the weeks and months ahead, we’ll find out how grown-up the Knights have become.