FOR 27 minutes Willie Mason sat on the sideline, casting a formidable shadow over last night’s proceedings.
Then came the call from master coach Wayne Bennett and out trotted the 233rd man to play first grade for the Newcastle Knights, prompting a rumble of anticipation among the 16,892-strong crowd at Hunter Stadium.
Novocastrians have cheered for plenty of home-grown NRL heroes over the past 25 years.
Names like Johns, Harragon and Gidley played out famous careers in their own backyard.
But few players in the club’s history would have enjoyed a more welcoming reception on their debuts than the 32-year-old former Test forward.
In his 10 previous appearances at Turton Road, big Willie was always cast in the role of pantomime villain.
Whether he was wearing the colours of Canterbury, the Roosters or North Queensland, Mason was a Toronto boy.
The one who got away.
But last night, for the first time, Knights fans were able to embrace him as their own.
The roar when he entered the contest must have been worth at least 12 points as a home-ground advantage.
And Mason is a master of playing to an audience.
Within minutes of taking the field, he was charging into the rucks, milking penalties and crunching opponents in defence, his every effort greeted with encouragement and applause.
Given that he had not played in the NRL since round 26, 2010 – 604 days earlier, to be precise – it was a promising display.
Give him a month or so to build form and match fitness, and he should only improve.
To be fair, these were ideal circumstances for a comeback.
Penrith have been in awful form, as consecutive 30-0 hammerings would suggest.
And they were already 10-4 down and lucky to be still in touch when Mason entered the fray.
When he was replaced 21 minutes later, it was 16-4 and soon afterwards, the floodgates opened for the home side.
In his brief stint, punctuated by the half-time break, Mason produced six runs, 47 attacking metres and eight tackles.
He was sucking in deep breaths when he was replaced and immediately applied ice to his left hamstring.
Later, he declared himself ‘‘sweet’’.
‘‘It was a relief to get it out the way and great to come away with the win,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, the casualty toll mounted at an alarming rate.
Senior Knights Danny Buderus (Achilles) and Kurt Gidley (shoulder) were replaced and did not return.
Penrith lost Luke Walsh, Michael Jennings and Luke Lewis.
Among all the carnage, the Knights produced some of their best football of the season.
Left-edge colleagues Timana Tahu and James McManus were in lethal form out wide.
The six tries were a perfect reply to those critics who have been querying Newcastle’s spluttering attack.
It is too early to label Willie Mason a saviour.
Last night’s display was only a cameo. But it was a start. A solid start.
Afterwards, Bennett offered a wry smile when asked to assess Mason’s performance.
‘‘I think one [stint] was enough for Willie tonight,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘He talked it up enough. I don’t think he had any more energy.’’
Knights halfback Jarrod Mullen said Mason had been a great addition ‘‘on and off the field’’.
‘‘He’s really taken ownership of the forwards, and you could really see the forwards lift when he came on the field,’’ Mullen said.
‘‘You could see what the crowd thinks of him, so he definitely lifts the boys when he’s out there.’’