WHEN he was given the chance to play for New Zealand in the Four Nations tournament last October, Junior Sa’u sought advice from incoming Knights coach Wayne Bennett.
Only a few weeks into his new gig, Bennett had picked the brains of Knights insiders and some of them had painted the nuggety New Zealander as a lazy trainer who needed to lose some weight and develop a better work ethic.
Bennett gave Sa’u the benefit of the doubt and although he started the season behind Timana Tahu and Wes Naiqama as the club’s first-choice centres, he had convinced the coach he was worth keeping.
In a pre-season radio interview, Bennett even joked that he had taught the Auckland-born, Brisbane-raised 24-year-old how to pass the ball.
Those skills were on show yesterday as Sa’u provided the final pass for winger Aku Uate’s two tries in Newcastle’s sloppy 14-6 victory over Parramatta at Hunter Stadium.
Apart from his two try assists, the first with a one-handed offload in which he wrapped his left arm behind two defenders, Sa’u ran the ball 13 times to make 104metres and made 13 tackles.
One of those tackles, in combination with forwards Adam Cuthbertson and Chris Houston, held up Parramatta prop Fuifui Moimoi over the line in the 76th minute to deny the charging Eels enforcer a try and protect Newcastle’s eight-point lead.
Having replaced the suspended Tahu against the Sharks on March 11, Sa’u was called up again after Naiqama suffered a knee injury against Brisbane the following week.
The game against the Eels yesterday was his best of the four he has started this year, and he wants to make it impossible for Bennett to drop him when Naiqama is ready to return in the next few weeks.
‘‘He’s a guy, there was a lot of criticism about him before I came here – a lot of guys tried to convince me that maybe I shouldn’t keep him etcetera, etcetera,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘... I’ll be honest with you, he could have gone away with the New Zealand team – they’d lost a few players for the Four Nations late last year – and he rang me up and said he’d been given an opportunity to go on the Four Nations.
‘‘But he said, ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to stay here and go through the pre-season with you and give myself the best chance I can of playing good football this year.’
‘‘And all the things that people have said about him, well I haven’t found them in him.
‘‘He trained his heart out, he’s got himself down to about 97kilograms, his defence is getting better each week and he’s making a lot of good decisions, and his work rate is great.
‘‘I was just pleased to see him today pass the football as well, even better.
‘‘You like those stories, because he’s a guy that’s got a bit of an eye for improving himself, and that’s what you want in your players.’’
Bennett has always encouraged players to aspire to play representative rugby league, particularly at the international level, but he said Sa’u needed to spend a full summer with the Knights.
In contrast, the coach said Uate’s quiet start could be traced back to knee surgery he had after returning from Australia’s successful Four Nations campaign in November.
‘‘I realised that Junior did need a pre-season; he needed to be with us,’’ he said.
‘‘It was going to be a tough pre-season and he didn’t need to come back and have a soft pre-season, which they do after tours, because you can’t get them back until January.
‘‘Sometimes in a guy’s footy career, the making of his career is the pre-season, because you do so much hard work and it goes on for three months and you value everything about the team and about what you can bring to the team.
‘‘When players miss it, they miss a fair bit.
‘‘Aku’s been struggling a bit with his form, though he was much better today, but he’s been struggling, because he got a knee injury overseas and couldn’t do a pre-season with us at all.
‘‘He didn’t do anything with us, so it’s been a bit of a battle for him, but that’s the contrast, between one guy who managed to get one in, and another guy that didn’t, through no fault of his own.
‘‘But Aku got some good form back today, so he’ll only get better now.’’