Craig Smith precedent offers hope for Mason at Knights

ACTIONS are always going to speak louder than words.

But as Willie Mason prepares for his NRL comeback on Monday night, a quick stroll down memory lane should reassure Knights fans he still has something to offer.

It was not that long ago, seven years to be precise, that the Knights found themselves in a similar situation: struggling for form and confidence and lacking a big man capable of leading their pack.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And so it was that then Knights coach Michael Hagan made contact with a bloke many had long since forgotten, former South Sydney, St George Illawarra and New Zealand prop Craig Smith.

At the time, Smith was recently returned from England, where he had played three seasons for Wigan.

He was intending to have a season playing with Thirroul Butchers in the Wollongong competition, just to keep fit, before hanging up the boots.

Hagan’s call changed all that.

Newcastle’s engine room had been decimated by injuries and the sacking of youngster Dane Tilse.

Hagan needed a quick fix.

It is unlikely he could have imagined how efficiently Smith would provide it.

Linking with the Knights before their round-four clash with North Queensland, Smith had a handful of training sessions to acquaint himself with his new teammates.

He then made his Newcastle debut off the bench, scoring a try, carrying the ball 105metres and making 17 tackles without a single miss in his 33minutes on the pitch.

It was a rare bright note in Newcastle’s 52-18 defeat. And Smith was just warming up.

By the end of the season he had played in 22 straight games, grinding out more metres (2885) than any other Newcastle forward and making more tackles (639) than anyone except Steve Simpson (711).

That contribution was enough to secure Smith a one-year contract extension, and in 2006 he played in 23 of a possible 26 games as the Knights reached the top four.

Once again, Smith was one of Newcastle’s best-performed forwards and lost nothing in comparison to opponents 10 and even 15 years his junior.

When Smith first signed with Newcastle, he had turned 33.

Mason recently celebrated his 32nd birthday, so he would appear to have a year up his sleeve.

As for the theory that the former Test forward was a spent force when he left the NRL two years ago, statistics tend to indicate otherwise.

A late signing for North Queensland, Mason played all 24 games in 2010 and carried the ball further (2561m) than any player in the Cowboys squad except Test prop Matt Scott (2818m).

He was also the Cowboys’ fifth most productive defender, making 395 tackles, and produced more offloads (37) than any teammate.

Those numbers would indicate Mason was still performing at a high level during his season in Townsville.

That he left the NRL at the end of that campaign for Hull Kingston Rovers was perhaps not so much a reflection of his ability, but how much the English club were prepared to pay for his services.

During his days at Canterbury and the Roosters, Mason was one of the NRL’s top earners.

Inevitably, however, the salary cap forces ageing players to accept a pay cut or head overseas.

Mason decided to take the money and run.

Now he is back, playing for peanuts.

Knights fans can only hope that, like Craig Smith, he has saved the best until last.

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