HE runs a tough school, Wayne Bennett.
Just ask Matt Hilder, who was wearing a polo shirt and track pants last night when his Knights teammates ran out onto AAMI Park to play the Melbourne Storm.
A first-grade mainstay since he arrived in Newcastle in 2008, Hilder was named as 18th man this week.
He helped collect the balls after last night’s warm-up and retired to the role of spectator once play kicked off.
Hilder will never be a high-profile player, but his blue-collar contributions over the past five seasons should not be underestimated. Like Billy Peden, Marc Glanville and Paul Marquet before him, Hilder is the type of quiet achiever who embodies the philosophy of founding Knights coach Allan McMahon: ‘‘Be the man everyone else wants to play alongside.’’
Since joining the Knights the 29-year-old utility forward has played in 89 NRL games and rarely handed in a poor performance.
Only Richie Fa’aoso (95) and Jarrod Mullen (90) have featured more often.
In that time he has made more tackles – 3109 at last count – than any other Newcastle player.
He was the club’s 2010 player of the year and has twice won the coveted players’ player award.
Under previous coaches Brian Smith and Rick Stone, he was invariably one of the first men picked, so last night’s omission represented a significant juncture in his career.
Hilder is no rookie trying to establish himself in first grade. He is a veteran of a decade and 189 games in the NRL.
And while this setback will have disappointed him, he is an unflappable character and straight shooter who would no doubt admit he has not put his best foot forward this season.
Circumstances, admittedly, have conspired against him.
Hilder is at his most valuable when he starts a match and plays the full 80 minutes, often getting through 40 or 50 tackles and whatever hit-ups are required. He relishes a gruelling workload.
Yet Hilder’s year kicked off on the bench and he played only 27 minutes in the season-opener against St George Illawarra.
He then spent the best part of two games playing as a stopgap five-eighth when Kurt Gidley was injured, missing an uncharacteristic six tackles in the loss to Brisbane.
Last week, Gidley’s return relegated Hilder to the role of fresh reserve against the Bulldogs.
In his 12 minutes of game time he dropped a ball and missed a tackle before being replaced.
Maybe Hilder is playing wounded.
Or perhaps his confidence is at a low ebb.
Whatever the case, when Bennett had to choose between Hilder and tyro Zane Tetevano this week, it seems unlikely he agonised over the decision.
Tetevano will never get through as much dirty work as Hilder, but he has the size and power to make an impact as an interchange shock weapon.
Against Melbourne, Bennett presumably felt he had to fight fire with fire.
The suspicion, however, is that Hilder will be back sooner rather than later.
He remains a crucial cog in Newcastle’s forward rotation.
And like the professional he is, no doubt he will work even harder to win his position back and hold it.
At least Hilder can take solace in the fact he re-signed last year for two seasons, so he has no contractual pressure.
The same cannot be said of former Kiwi Test prop Evarn Tuimavave, who has not been seen in first grade this year and is a free agent.
Tuimavave joined Newcastle from the Warriors in 2010 and, after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury, returned last year to establish himself as Newcastle’s No.1 front-rower.
In his 20 appearances, he made more offloads (25) than any other Newcastle prop and averaged more minutes (46.6), metres (92.4) and tackles (23.2) per game.
Yet the arrival of Kade Snowden and Adam Cuthbertson has created a roadblock in front of Tuimavave, a veteran of 135 NRL games.
As has been the case for Junior Sa’u, Hilder and Tuimavave have experienced a reality check since the arrival of the master coach.
Between them, the trio have played in the best part of 400 NRL fixtures.
But in Wayne’s world teams are chosen on current form, not reputation.