WILLIE Mason’s chances of resurrecting his NRL career with the Knights look like being decided today by a test of wills between coach Wayne Bennett and chief executive Matt Gidley.
Bennett rates Mason as the player to provide Newcastle’s pack with much-needed muscle and mongrel. Gidley, supported by other influential Knights figures, is not quite sold on the idea.
Less than a year into his role as CEO, the recently inducted Knights Hall of Famer is rightfully concerned about what sort of message signing 32-year-old Mason will send.
Since speaking to Bennett about Mason last week, then to Mason’s manager Sam Ayoub on Saturday night, Gidley has canvassed the thoughts of chairman Paul Harragon, other members of the club’s advisory board, sponsors, supporters, members and media representatives.
Having already thrown lifelines to Albert Kelly and Daine Laurie, Gidley is contemplating whether the Knights have enough room to accommodate another notorious bad boy.
Clearly, Bennett believes Mason is worth the risk. Apart from his reputation as the most successful coach in the game’s history, he is renowned as a man manager without peer who must feel confident about keeping Mason on a tight leash.
Rightly or wrongly, Mason polarises opinions.
His on-field performances are dissected and discussed more than most players, and his off-field behaviour is scrutinised even more closely.
Apart from the off-field baggage he carries, Mason’s lack of game time since leaving the Cowboys and the NRL at the end of 2010 is causing even more angst at Knights HQ.
Mason played just six English Super League games for Hull Kingston Rovers last season, and was cut six months into a three-year contract.
He switched codes to join French rugby union club Toulon but in eight months played a total of 74 minutes in two pre-season trials and one Top 14 premiership game, and has been considering his career options since bidding them adieu last December.
Seemingly referring to the termination settlement he received from Toulon, Mason tweeted this month: ‘‘F..k I love days like this thanks for the 500,000€ payout haha #unemployementrocks’’
Mason has trained alone during that time, but some of the people Gidley spoke to questioned how long it would take the 2004 Churchill Medallist to reach NRL fitness levels.
‘‘Even if he signed this week, it would take him at least three or four weeks to get up to speed in some of the basics. That takes him through to the middle of the season, and he’s hardly being seen as part of the club’s long-term future,’’ one source said.
‘‘And what will that do to the confidence of the blokes in his position that have already done a full pre-season and played six or seven rounds of NRL or NSW Cup?’’
Mason has been shopped to the Knights three times since returning from France.
On the first two occasions he was told ‘thanks, but no thanks’, because they were not interested and did not have space under their salary cap.
But when Bennett and Gidley spoke late last week about the team’s lack of experience and punch in the pack in the first seven rounds, the coach raised Mason’s name as a short-term solution to support and lead the club’s developing players and boost their confidence.
The Herald has been told Gidley was lukewarm on the idea, but Bennett asked him to contact Ayoub to discuss it and establish Mason’s asking price.
Ayoub and Gidley spoke on Saturday night, Gidley contacted Knights recruitment manager Peter Mulholland and financial controller Phil Blackford, and asked them to crunch the numbers to determine whether they had any room to move under their second-tier cap.
A $40,000 sign-on fee and match payments was the best they could cobble together, but when those figures were included yesterday in a Sydney newspaper report which had Mason virtually signed, sealed and delivered Gidley was livid and called Bennett to say the deal was off.
The Knights had not even tabled an offer to Mason – and still have not – but the leaking of such confidential information was a deal-breaker as far as Gidley was concerned.
Gidley and Bennett exchanged phone calls yesterday and the coach convinced his young CEO to calm down and reconsider, and they will talk again today – after Gidley consults further with sponsors and other stakeholders – to make their decision.
Mason was close to signing with the Knights in March 2010 as a replacement for convicted drug dealer Danny Wicks, but he instead chose the Cowboys in the belief he had more chance of winning a premiership in Townsville than in Newcastle.
That decision still rankles some long-serving Knights identities, because Mason was seen to have turned his back on his home-town NRL club at a time when they were crying out for an experienced pack leader.
The Cowboys finished second-last that year – Melbourne were last after being stripped of all their points for deliberately breaching the salary cap – and the Knights finished 11th.
So will he or won’t he?
Will it come down to a case of who blinks first if Gidley tries to stare down Bennett today?
If it does, the smart money will be on the coach, because for most of his illustrious career, it has been a case of what Wayne wants, Wayne gets.