JUNIOR Sa’u should have a clearer idea of the position he occupies in Wayne Bennett’s pecking order when the Knights coach names his team today for Sunday’s clash with Cronulla at Toyota Park.
Sa’u was omitted from Newcastle’s line-up for their season-opening loss to StGeorge Illawarra, instead travelling to Auckland with Newcastle’s NSW Cup outfit for his first reserve-grade game since his NRL debut in 2008.
Sau’s hopes of a prompt recall were enhanced yesterday when the NRL’s match-review committee charged teammate Timana Tahu with grade-one contrary conduct after his brain snap against the Dragons.
Unless the Knights successfully defend the charge at the judiciary, Tahu will be suspended from Sunday’s showdown.
That would leave Newcastle with a vacancy at left centre, the position Sa’u filled for four years and 78 NRL games before Tahu’s return.
The nine-Test Kiwi international would appear the ideal candidate to replace Tahu in a like-for-like swap.
Most coaches would be delighted to have such an experienced campaigner waiting impatiently in the background for an opportunity.
But Bennett has a viable alternative in Alex McKinnon, the fearless tyro who followed the coach from Kogarah to Newcastle at the end of last season.
McKinnon is best known as a backrower, but is versatile enough to multi-skill in the outside backs, as evidenced by his two-try NRL debut for the Dragons as centre last season.
In last week’s loss, he played 35 minutes off the bench alongside Tahu on Newcastle’s left edge.
The prospect of Bennett shifting McKinnon one man wider to partner James McManus would not seem beyond the realms of possibility.
But McKinnon’s utility value provides great balance to Newcastle’s bench, so Bennett may be loath to tinker with his rotation of fresh reserves.
If Sa’u wins reinstatement, his challenge will be convincing Bennett he is worthy of more than a one-off role as Tahu’s fill-in. And that may take some doing.
Other than his moment of madness involving Dragons forward Matt Prior, Tahu’s first game for Newcastle since 2004 was encouraging.
He threw the final pass for a McManus try, carried the ball 76 metres from eight carries and made 16 tackles without missing any.
It was a promising start, especially considering it was the dual international’s first competition game since tearing his pectoral muscle playing for Penrith last May.
On the other side of the field, Wes Naiqama was even more impressive, making 118 attacking metres and nine tackles to pick up where he left off last season.
If Sa’u was virtually guaranteed a walk-up start in Newcastle’s backline in previous seasons, that is clearly no longer the case. Sa’u may have ticked all the boxes during the pre-season, declining New Zealand selection for the Four Nations to rest his injuries and stripping close to seven kilograms off his chunky frame.
But the presence of Tahu, Naiqama, McKinnon and L-plater Siuatonga Likiliki means the 24-year-old is now facing the fight of his career.
A big game against the Sharks on Sunday will only help his cause. But that, of course, depends on whether Bennett selects him today.