Willie Mason reveals Newcastle skipper’s Mariners history

FIFTEEN years after they crossed paths as skinny teenagers, Willie Mason revealed Kurt Gidley’s darkest secret yesterday. The Knights skipper was once a Hunter Mariner.

It is part of rugby league folklore that Toronto boy Mason could not get a start in the Knights junior system so he linked with the Mariners’ under-17s during the Super League split. When the ill fated franchise folded, he packed his bags for Belmore and within a few years had established himself as one of the NRL’s personality players.

For more than a decade, Novocastrians have considered Mason the one that got away. But after signing an incentive-based deal with the Knights until the end of this season, the 32-year-old finally gets the chance to represent his home-town club.

And nobody is more excited than Gidley, who joined Mason yesterday for his first training session as a Knight.

Big Willie was quick to note the venue – University No.3 Oval – was the same one on which the junior Mariners once trained.

Gidley, two years younger than Mason, was a member of the Mariners’ 15- to 16-year squad being groomed to compete a year later in the Terry Lamb (under-17) Cup.

But by the end of that season Super League and the ARL reached a compromise and the Mariners folded, leaving Gidley in limbo for a couple of years.

He eventually joined the Knights, transforming from the tiny dynamo Mason remembered as weighing ‘‘about 45 kilos’’ into one of the club’s greats.

And now he gets a chance to play regularly alongside Mason, who has occasionally been his teammate in representative teams.

‘‘It’s certainly better than playing against him,’’ Gidley enthused yesterday. ‘‘I’ve done that too many times over the years and I know how hard he is to handle for a smaller bloke like me.

‘‘I know how keen he is to get back into rugby league, especially in Newcastle with the Knights ... he’s looking forward to running out in front of a Newcastle home crowd, who are behind him for a change.’’

Knights legend Matthew Johns believes Mason can be the man to ignite Newcastle’s season, after an anticlimactic start to the Wayne Bennett era that has yielded three wins from seven games. Gidley is not about to disagree.

The captain, who hopes to return from knee surgery against Penrith on Monday week, was impressed with Mason’s fitness during yesterday’s conditioning hit-out.

‘‘We just had a good session with a bit of a rehab crew and Mase,’’ Gidley said.

‘‘I think he’s pretty keen to have a run [in NSW Cup] this weekend. I know he’s been training hard with a personal trainer in Sydney, doing some sprint work, so he’s come here in pretty good shape.’’

NSW selectors will be sweating on Gidley’s return, as he appears to be a certain selection for the Origin opener in Melbourne on May 23.

‘‘It’s the second run I’ve had this week and it’s still a week and a half away to the Penrith game,’’ he said. ‘‘Hopefully I’ll be back for that one.’’

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