THE return of Wes Naiqama from injury leaves Knights coach Wayne Bennett pondering a backline makeover for Monday’s clash with Penrith at Hunter Stadium.
The Fijian Test captain has not played in the NRL since tearing cartilage in his knee during the round-three loss to Brisbane five weeks ago but made a successful NSW Cup comeback in Sunday’s 36-18 win against Illawarra Cutters.
After emerging from that hit-out unscathed, Naiqama declared himself ready for an NRL recall..
‘‘The whole goal was to get through the game, so I guess it’s up to the coach from there,’’ Naiqama said.
‘‘The knee pulled up sweet. I’m confident it’s almost back to 100 per cent.
‘‘It’s been four weeks off the field, so it’s good to get back out there.
‘‘I just have to wait and see what the coach decides.’’
Bennett opted for Naiqama and Timana Tahu as his first-choice centre pairing for the season kick-off, which meant Kiwi international Junior Sa’u started the year in reserve grade.
But Naiqama’s absence has given Sa’u four consecutive games to state his case for retention, and the chunky 25-year-old has made the most of his opportunities.
Sau’s statistics certainly offer a glimmer of hope that he will hold his spot.
He is averaging more metres (92.6) per game than either Tahu (75.5) or Naiqama (67.7) and is the only Newcastle centre to have scored a try this season.
Sa’u has also produced two try assists, as has Naiqama, one more than Tahu.
The lack of attacking thrust from his centres must be concerning Bennett.
Wingers Akuila Uate and James McManus are enjoying impressive seasons and have made five line breaks apiece – the most by any wingers in the NRL.
But Sa’u (one), Tahu (one) and Naiqama (zero) have made just two line breaks between them in seven games.
Only Parramatta (no line breaks) and South Sydney (one) have shown less strikepower in the centres this season.
Tahu, Sa’u and Naiqama are all tough, experienced campaigners and Bennett knows what they bring to his team.
The wildcard option could be rookie Siuatonga Likiliki, who has scored seven tries in eight NSW Cup games this season, including a hat-trick against Illawarra on Sunday.
Injuries restricted Likiliki to two NRL games after he joined the Knights from the Warriors last season.
The 22-year-old is raw but has the power and pace to worry his NRL rivals.
On the flip side, defensively he can go missing and opposition coaches would no doubt look to exploit that.
Naiqama may not be Newcastle’s only big name returning to duty this week.
Skipper Kurt Gidley resumed running last week after recent knee surgery and hopes to prove he is fit to tackle the Panthers. If so, he will be an automatic inclusion at the expense of young halfback Tyrone Roberts.
The other quandary facing Bennett is whether to rush new signing Willie Mason into his squad.
Mason impressed in his NSW Cup debut for Newcastle on Sunday and declared after the game he was confident he could ‘‘do a job’’ for Bennett at NRL level.
The former Test forward trained with Newcastle’s top squad yesterday and it would be no surprise if Bennett rolled the dice today and named Mason on the bench.