WILLIE Mason made a definite impact in his rugby league comeback yesterday, not least on Illawarra Cutters forward Will Matthews.
The jury is still out on how long he will need to do likewise at NRL level.
After signing with the Knights last week for a reported $40,000, the former Test enforcer started in the front row yesterday in Newcastle’s NSW Cup clash with Illawarra at Toyota Stadium.
It was his first game for his home-town club, his first game with younger brother Rodney and his first game of rugby league in Australia for 597 days, since he parted company with North Queensland to link with English club Hull Kingston Rovers then French rugby union outfit Toulon.
His 57 minutes on the pitch could best be described as a mixed bag.
There were strong runs, fierce defence, a couple of penalties, a forward pass, some classy offloads and plenty of vocal encouragement, which echoed around the largely unoccupied stands.
But there were conspicuous minutes spent hunched over in backplay, hands on hips, sucking in oxygen, as you would expect from any player, especially a big man lacking in match fitness.
By and large, it was an encouraging first outing.
And anybody still doubting whether Mason, at 32, could cut it in the top grade should swap notes with Matthews.
The former Gold Coast Titans forward, who has played in 31 NRL games, was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Mason received an inside ball from halfback Tyrone Roberts in the 19th minute of yesterday’s match.
Matthews went in for the tackle. A split second later he was impersonating a starfish as Mason powered upfield.
Illawarra’s medical staff helped him from the field and he played no further part in the match.
That was a glimpse of the type of carnage Mason used to create often in his prime.
Those days may be long behind him, but on yesterday’s evidence it would appear the veteran still has plenty to offer Knights coach Wayne Bennett.
Give him an injury-free month, and surely big Willie will be even more of a handful for his opposition.
To put yesterday’s performance in context, Mason was joined in Newcastle’s line-up by a host of experienced first-graders, including Wes Naiqama, Richie Fa’aoso and Evarn Tuimavave, and lost nothing in comparison.
During his first stint, which lasted 33 minutes, he took at least one hit-up in most attacking sets, and when he returned in the 53rd minute he was just as involved.
Defensively he dished out his share of big hits, although there were also moments when he appeared to be tired and cumbersome.
The question is how much NSW Cup time Mason will need before Bennett prepares to unleash him in the NRL.
With a game under his belt, Mason reckons he is ready to play against Penrith next Monday night.
His self-confidence is admirable but playing in the NRL will be a whole new ball game, against bigger, stronger, smarter opponents than yesterday.
Bennett did not attend yesterday’s match, which Newcastle won 36-18, but is expected to peruse Mason’s contribution on video.
Fair chance the master coach will like what he sees.