A MASTER stroke or the first signs of panic?
Only time will tell whether Wayne Bennett’s bold gamble on Willie Mason pays off for the Newcastle Knights.
The remaining 15 clubs in the NRL gave the former Test forward a wide berth, which is hardly surprising given that he is 32, has not played in the NRL for two seasons, and has a reputation for often finding himself in close proximity to controversy.
But Bennett has opted to roll the dice, and it will be intriguing to see how this unfolds.
It could be a shrewd move.
Mason must realise this is his last chance. If he is unable to perform for Newcastle, or encounters off-field drama, his professional career will almost certainly be over.
What greater motivation could a man need?
Well, throw in the fact he is finally playing for his home-town club, will be lining up alongside old mates like Danny Buderus and Kurt Gidley, and will be coached by the most successful tactician of all time, and there should be enough incentive for big Willie to run through brick walls.
The form shown by Buderus this season, after three years in England, is also cause for optimism. Buderus is two years older than Mason, yet in a few weeks’ time he is likely to be wearing a sky blue jersey in the State of Origin series opener.
Youth and speed are great attributes, but so are experience and mental toughness.
Mason may be past his prime but he will nonetheless bring an X-factor to Newcastle’s forward rotation.
His sheer physical presence intimidates opponents. And he is the type of larger-than-life character whose confidence rubs off on his teammates.
There is an aura about the boy from Toronto. Blokes want to play alongside him, rather than against him.
If he can come close to putting his best foot forward, it could prove the best $40,000 Bennett ever spent.
The question that has to be asked is why the veteran coach felt compelled to invest such faith in one of the NRL’s notorious loose cannons.
The answer, presumably, is that after three wins from seven games, Bennett doubts whether he has the forwards to mount a serious challenge for this year’s title.
Another battering ram, especially one who has played in 24 Tests and 13 Origins, could come in handy at the business end of the season.
But in opting for a quick fix, Bennett has placed a stumbling block in front of the fringe first-graders who sweated during the pre-season and have been groomed for NRL action.
These youngsters are entitled to be disappointed, especially if Mason’s arrival causes salary-cap issues that reduce their chances of appearing in the NRL.
No doubt Bennett would have considered all this, and proceeded regardless.
If it was any other coach, people would say he was mad.
But in this case, there is a sneaking suspicion that a fairytale is in the making.
One way or the other, it should be highly entertaining.