KNIGHTS playmaker Jarrod Mullen knew the questions were coming.
Mullen’s man-of-the-match performance was one of few highlights of a grim game at Hunter Stadium yesterday, in which Newcastle defeated Parramatta 14-6 to register their first home win of the season in front of an Easter Sunday crowd of 24,518.
He stopped Parramatta wrecking ball Fuifui Moimoi in his tracks with three front-on tackles that either saved tries or shut down dangerous attacking raids, and his 40-20 kick then quick hands to fullback Darius Boyd created a second try for winger Aku Uate that stretched Newcastle’s lead to eight points in the 53rd minute.
At a time when peoples’ minds turn to the State of Origin series starting in six weeks, it was the type of performance that would have surely made Blues coach Ricky Stuart sit up and take notice.
For more pictures from the game, click on the image above.
Mullen, predictably, said he was looking no further than Newcastle’s next game against St George Illawarra at Jubilee Oval on Friday night, and a close encounter with incumbent NSW No.6 Jamie Soward.
His one and only NSW appearance was five years ago, at halfback, as a 20-year-old, so he said he no longer wasted time dreaming of a return to the Origin stage.
‘‘It’s the same every year. My name gets tossed up, and nothing usually eventuates out of it,’’ said Mullen, who turns 25 today.
‘‘It’s a cliche, but I’m just taking it game by game.
‘‘I’d love to get back in the sky blue, but I’ve got to play consistent here first.
‘‘I probably got caught up too much in it when I was a younger fella, but now I’m a bit older and wiser I don’t worry about it any more. I’ve just got to keep playing good footy here.’’
Knights and former Queensland mentor Wayne Bennett was impressed but said Mullen had to be considered as an Origin five-eighth.
Mullen spent most of the pre-season training at halfback and played the first three games there, but Bennett switched him to pivot against the Bulldogs two weeks ago – a game Newcastle won 18-6 – and has no plans to move him back.
‘‘He can’t be the halfback. That’s not his position, but he’s in that mix of other players. There’s a few others that are real chances,’’ Bennett said of Mullen’s Origin prospects.
‘‘I’ve got no complaints with him. I think five-eighth is his position. He’s been there the last three weeks and he’s a crucial part of what we do now.
‘‘He brings a lot of options, and his kicking game today, that 40-20 was a real moment in the game which we obviously needed, and we scored off that ...
‘‘Defensively he’s been stacking up as well, which is always a bit of a worry with the size of [the halves], but he’s got a huge amount of confidence in his defence.’’
Mullen said Bennett and assistant Rick Stone challenged him to defend against Moimoi on the fringes of the rucks, and he never blinked.
‘‘I was happy to challenge myself and take him on ... I said I wanted to stay there and I was happy to get the job done,’’ Mullen said.
Bennett could not believe Moimoi continued to target Mullen on Newcastle’s right edge.
‘‘It was pretty smart. He should have got the message when he got tackled the fifth or sixth time he wasn’t going to run over him,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘It was great defence. We talked about it, and that’s where he’s been running, and Fuifui just kept doing it all day ... and Jarrod wanted the opportunity to tackle him.
‘‘He was confident he could do that, so we made a deliberate decision to leave him there and he done a great job. He was outstanding, actually.’’
Knights and former NSW captain Danny Buderus said Mullen had matured as a leader but had to prove himself against the other contenders each week to convince Stuart and Blues selectors to give him another shot at Origin.
‘‘They’ll throw half a dozen names up for the six spot, but he’s been there before, Mullo. It’s still another four or five weeks out, and he’s got a big game this week against St George, so they might build that one up and see how he goes there,’’ Buderus said.
‘‘I’ve been away for three years and noticed a considerable difference in his leadership. He’s obviously leading the team, and you could throw him in at skipper.
‘‘He’s bossing the boys around a lot more and taking ownership of the team, and that’s what you want out of your more experienced players, especially in the halves.’’
Bennett said the Knights played well for the first 20 minutes yesterday but struggled for the rest of the game when they were ‘‘just a totally different football team’’.
‘‘Up until that 20-minute mark we were up 8-0, getting good field position, doing everything right, then we put a poor kick in and for whatever reason it just went out the back door everything else,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘We weren’t pretty today, but we’re just hanging in there good.
‘‘Winning today done a lot more for us than losing today, I can tell you. We can live with the shabby performance today knowing it’s back on again Friday night.’’
Embattled Eels coach Stephen Kearney said: ‘‘I don’t think Wayne would be real happy, but he’d be happier than me.’’
? Centre Chanel Mata’utia scored a hat-trick of tries in Newcastle’s 44-24 victory over Parramatta in the NYC game, which kept the Knights on top of the ladder.