KNIGHTS coach Wayne Bennett says controversial former Test forward Willie Mason has joined the club with a ‘‘clean slate’’.
Bennett told the Newcastle Herald last night Mason’s past misdemeanours were of no concern to him, and he was confident the former Bulldogs, Roosters and Cowboys enforcer would make worthwhile contributions on and off the field.
‘‘You know, Willie’s a headline,’’ he said.
‘‘That’s just the way it’s been, but if you know Willie Mason, there’s an extremely good bloke there. Like all of us, he has his imperfections, so he’s no exception to the rule.
‘‘But his past to me is the past. He comes to me with a clean slate, as far as I’m concerned, and the Knights, and that’s what we’ll judge him on.’’
The Knights said yesterday that the former Macquarie Scorpions and Hunter Mariners junior had signed an incentive-based contract to play out the rest of the season with his home-town NRL club.
The 2004 Clive Churchill medallist, who turned 32 on Sunday, passed a medical examination yesterday and is expected to play his first game in Knights colours in their NSW Cup team against Illawarra Cutters at Toyota Stadium on Sunday.
Mason will be considered for Newcastle’s next NRL game, against Penrith at Hunter Stadium on April 30, but a more realistic debut would be against the Roosters at Allianz Stadium on May 6.
He was shown the door at the Roosters at the end of 2009 by incoming coach Brian Smith, who had parted company with the Knights just a few weeks earlier.
Mason said in a media statement issued by the club that he was grateful to the Knights and Bennett for having confidence in him.
He later tweeted to his 8002 followers on Twitter: ‘‘Jus wanna tell all the knights supporters that it’s a privilege to b playn for this team, it’s my home town and can’t wait to rip in 100%’’
Mason’s recent resumé includes just six Super League games for Hull Kingston Rovers and 74 minutes of French rugby union with Toulon, but Bennett said the 196-centimetre prop would provide the size and strength the Knights had been missing up front.
He was convinced Mason, who won a premiership with the Bulldogs in 2004 and has played 24 Tests for Australia and 13 Origin games for NSW, was still motivated to perform and prove to himself and his critics that he could succeed in the NRL.
‘‘He wouldn’t be putting himself through all this if he didn’t think he wanted to prove something amongst the game, and finish his career on a note that he would be happy with himself,’’ said Bennett, who coached Mason in 10 Tests for Australia in 2004 and 2005.
He said Newcastle’s performances this season showed they were still ‘‘a big man short’’, and that Mason would fill that bill and bring out the best in his new teammates.
Knights captain Kurt Gidley and Mason, a long-time friend, were spotted having lunch together in Darby Street yesterday and they are expected to train together today.
Gidley tweeted: ‘‘Looking forward to playing along side my big mate @mase21 again! Just had lunch with him and he’s pumped to be apart of the @NRLKnights.’’
Mason’s deal is worth a $40,000 sign-on fee and match payments, and includes performance-based bonus clauses.
Knights chief executive Matt Gidley would not comment when asked whether Mason’s contract contained behaviour-related clauses.
During negotiations with Mason in early 2010, conducted three months after convicted drug dealer Danny Wicks quit the club, former Knights chief executive Steve Burraston said: ‘‘Any contract that we draw up will have strict behavioural clauses included and we will have the availability to terminate if the need did arise.’’
Mason took umbrage and signed to play for the Cowboys that season.
Though he and some senior Knights figures were initially cautious about signing Mason, Matt Gidley said yesterday that he was pleased to have another experienced, home-grown player back at the club.