For more than a year now, we’ve been reading stories that Mitchell Pearce is leaving Newcastle.
If memory serves – and I’m happy to be corrected if someone remembers an earlier rumour – it began last October, when word was that the Knights and Eels were investigating the possibility of a player swap between Pearce and his Parramatta counterpart, Mitchell Moses.
Then, days later, the story became that he was heading back to the club where he won the 2013 grand final and played the bulk of his career, the Roosters.
A family-fairytale finale for Pearce’s career was then apparently on the cards, with chat that he was set to move to the Wests Tigers, where his father had been the inaugural coach and is a legend of the Balmain side of the joint venture.
Before the 2021 season was finished Pearce had also been linked with the Bulldogs and Raiders, despite the fact he had signed an extension to stay in the Hunter for 2022 in March.
The point is, the latest rumour – that Newcastle’s veteran halfback is on his way to the Super League on a three-year deal – should be believed when Pearce disembarks at Charles de Gaulle with a beret on his head and a Catalans jersey on his shoulders.
However, if we have seen the last of the Pearce in the NRL, the issue the Knights face is not who will inherit the jersey Andrew Johns made so famous (and kinda-sorta cursed as a result).
Rather, as I see it, Newcastle are going to need to find a long-term fullback.
BREAKING: Mitchell Pearce has officially requested a release from @NRLKnights to take up a deal in the Super League. Both parties are working through the process now. No determination has been made yet. @nbnnews
— Kate Haberfield (@katehaberfield) October 27, 2021
The issue of the Knights’ long-term No.7 was addressed by the club last November when Jake Clifford signed on. What’s more, his efforts since arriving in town midway through this season should give Phil Gardner and Co. a warm and fuzzy feeling that they made the right call, with the 23-year-old showing plenty of promise.
He’s not yet the finished product, but Clifford is – at the very least – a first-grade halfback and could well be one of the best in the competition when he puts it all together. Talk of going out and spending big money on, say, Luke Brooks would seem unnecessary.
That means the Knights have a gap to fill at five-eighth, although there are no shortage of options.
Recognised halves on the books include Phoenix Crossland – who, just quietly, I saw at the beach the other day and can confirm has been in the gym! – new signing Adam Clune, exciting youngster Simi Sasagi, and Kurt Mann, who is admittedly a bit of everything but won the club’s 2020 Gladiator of the Year award playing primarily at six.
But let’s be honest, there’s really only one option.
It’s time for Kalyn Ponga to make his long-mooted move to five-eighth – if for no other reason than to find out once and for all whether it’s going to work.
When conversation turns to the issue of KP playing in the halves, people are quick to point out that the Knights tried it before, in 2019, and it didn’t work.
But that’s not really what happened.
His move into the halves lasted less than three games, Ponga shifting to the back midway through the club’s Round 3 loss to the Raiders.
As for why he didn’t last longer, it wasn’t that he was all at sea in the new position – the Knights simply didn’t have a fullback.
Connor Watson started the season at No.1 but he was ruled out through injury after two matches. This saw Mann named as custodian against Canberra but moved midway through the match, as it became clear he’s not made for that position.
So to say KP at six didn’t work is disingenuous – he played less than three full games in the position! What’s more, he played five-eighth for the Junior Kangaroos at the end of the same year and was just about the best player on the field in the Australia A side’s thrashing of France.
As a result, I often wonder how things would have shaken out for Newcastle these past few years if Nick Meaney had never gone to the Bulldogs.
The Knights’ 2016 NYC Player of the Year and 2017 NSW Cup Player of the Year, Meaney agreed to move to Belmore midway through 2018 as it became apparent he was not going to displace Ponga as the red-and-blue fullback.
Had he stuck around for one more season though, he may well have been the catalyst for Ponga making a successful transition into the halves. While not in the elite category, Meaney has proven himself a fullback of first-grade calibre.
That’s what was missing in 2019 – not a superstar at the back, just a bloke who could play the position well enough that there was no need to panic and abandon the experiment after two losses.
And so we come to the crux of the issue: do the Knights have a first-grade fullback this time around?
Word is that Bailey Hodgson is a gun. The nephew of Raiders hooker Josh debuted for Castleford Tigers in the English Super League just ten days after his 18th birthday and, having only recently turned 19, it’s believed the Knights signed him with the long-term view of making him the club’s fullback.
Of course, something similar was said of Tex Hoy, the local lad the club signed at just 14 years of age and describe on their website as being “a special talent”.
But after an underwhelming 2021, playing eight games but being unsighted since Round 14, Hoy is unsigned for next season and may well be on the rugby league scrapheap at just 21.
That said, if Pearce departs and the club decides that Ponga to the halves is the way to go, Hoy may be the beneficiary as the Knights look to add depth to their fullback stocks and at this late stage of the year, the cupboard is pretty bare.
But then that’s true of virtually all spine positions, where the best players in the game tend to ply their trade and therefore are locked away on multi-year deals long before we’re approaching November.
Which is why I’m still mildly sceptical of the Knights letting Pearce go at all. Sure they’d save a fair whack of coin – he may no longer be on $1 million a season but players of Pearce’s stature are well remunerated – but what would the club spend it on?
It’s like selling your mansion so that you can have a fat bank balance while living in a trailer.
And maybe that’s the plan: use the Pearce money to top up a bunch of players’ salaries in 2022 and use the savings to go after a big name for the 2023 season.
But they’d need to announce that big ’23 signing soon because, despite only managing losses in the two finals games they’ve played with him in the side, the big thing Mitchell Pearce brought to Newcastle was a shift in expectations.
No more wooden spoons. No more years-long rebuilds. No more write-off seasons.
Pearce may be at the end of his career and showing as much physically but, as evidenced by the team’s win-loss ratio with him in the side, his leadership and experience are still vital at the Knights.
You’d think 2022 will be his swansong but the plan was for Clifford to have a full 12 months learning alongside Pearce, which would give Hodgson another year of development as well.
Bringing that plan forward should only be entertained if it means the team doesn’t go backwards.