Wayne Bennett: We needed another big man

Wayne Bennett spoke to Newcastle Herald league reporter Brett Keeble yesterday after signing Willie Mason for the rest of the season.

BRETT KEEBLE

As a footballer, what will Willie Mason provide for the Knights?

WAYNE BENNETT

In all fairness to everybody, we’re just probably a big guy short. Everybody’s working hard in the place and a good attitude exists but the game is still about big men and go forward, and I’m optimistic that he can certainly do that job for us extremely well.

KEEBLE

What about his fitness, and his lack of much football in the last 18 months or so?

BENNETT

No, that’s not a big concern. We’ve run a test with him – we tested him today – and he’s in pretty good shape. He told me he’d been training extremely hard and by the tests we ran on him today, that would indicate that. We’ve just got to get a little bit of footy behind him now, and he can only get that by playing.

KEEBLE

Will he play NSW Cup for the Knights this weekend?

BENNETT

He may well do. We’ve got to get that sorted out yet, but there’s a pretty good chance he may do that.

KEEBLE

Are you concerned about any criticism you might get for bringing him in and jumping the queue ahead of blokes who have done a pre-season and have already played six or seven games?

BENNETT

Look, I’m not in the business of trying to make everybody happy. You don’t do these things just sitting around and all of a sudden you get a good idea in your head. It’s seven weeks we’ve been playing, and it’s obvious to me that we need somebody that can complement what we’ve got in the forward pack, and I believe that’s what he can bring for us, otherwise I wouldn’t go through the exercise. It’s about complementing what we’ve got, and that’s the key to this.

KEEBLE

Do you envisage when you think he might be in NRL shape?

BENNETT

I wouldn’t see him coming back starting in the NRL, in the short term. But with the interchange bench, you can use that, and I’m sure Willie could handle the interchange bench pretty quickly, because he’s in good shape. That’s my point. His playing weight’s great, he tested great this morning, and he’s a guy that has always been training pretty hard waiting for an opportunity.

KEEBLE

His desire to get back and prove to himself and to whoever else that he can still cut it at this level, that must be in your favour too, don’t you think?

BENNETT

Well, when you make these decisions, there’s a lot of things you have to weigh up, and that was one of the crucial things for me personally: where was he at with his ambition. He’s won a premiership, he’s played for Australia, he’s played Origin, he’s done it all in the game, and he’s just turned 32 years of age, so where does all that sit with him still? 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. So that was a big part of my decision. Where’s the hunger, and how much does he really want to be good again? To see that he’s come back in the shape that he is, and knowing that he’s been struggling to get a club – no clubs have raced in to sign him, and he’s been on the market for a while – I think means that the things that I need to know most about him are that he really wants to play well again, and be that footballer that we all know he can be, is still a big priority for him.

KEEBLE

Regarding his off-field reputation, he carries some baggage, and right or wrong, people have got fairly strong opinions about him either way, so does any of that concern you and how are you prepared to handle that?

BENNETT

No. Again, if it concerned me, I wouldn’t do it, right. You know, Willie’s a headline. 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. What people don’t know, and what people don’t realise about him, is his commitment to the community, and the popularity that he has out there amongst young people, and the things that he does. If you talked to any of his close friends, and certainly I’ve done that in the last week or so, one thing they’ll all say is how involved he is in community, and helping people that are certainly less fortunate than him. But of course that doesn’t get the headlines, because that’s a good story, and Willie’s been a victim of that as well. So as I said, his past is something I can’t undo, and don’t intend to, but I am confident about our future with him.

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