Bennett reserves his judgement on troops

ON paper it shapes as one of the strongest teams the Knights have ever fielded.

In reserve grade, that is.

Between them they have appeared in close to 600 NRL games, semi-finals, a couple of Test matches and the 2008 World Cup.

Today they will trot out in front of a handful of diehards at the modest surrounds of Townson Oval, Merewether, for Newcastle’s NSW Cup match with the Auckland Vulcans.

And unfortunately for Knights coach Wayne Bennett, this situation has not arisen through an embarrassment of riches.

His team have lost three consecutive games, are languishing in 11th place on the competition ladder, and have scored fewer points than any other side.

The inexplicable mediocrity prompted Bennett to admit after last week’s demoralising loss to Gold Coast: ‘‘My greatest difficulty right now is I have to pick the teams.

‘‘If everybody is doing their job they pick themselves ... that’s usually a pretty good indication of when things aren’t going good, when you’ve got to pick the teams.’’

Despite initially arguing against selection changes just for the sake of it, Bennett eventually reached for the axe.

And by sacking quiet achievers Matt Hilder and Zeb Taia, Bennett has delivered a message loud and clear to their teammates.

Hilder and Taia are hardly superstars. But both have been proud, wholehearted clubmen for Newcastle whose true value is best appreciated by the men who play alongside them.

Hilder, with 195 NRL games to his name, is Newcastle’s most experienced player after acting skipper Danny Buderus (229).

Taia has strung together 89 top-grade games for the Knights since his mid-season arrival from Parramatta in 2007.

He had a night to forget against the Titans last week but, prior to that, had played the full 80 minutes in five successive games and was among Newcastle’s best each time.

Hilder and Taia join fellow first-grade regulars Evarn Tuimavave (138 NRL games) and Wes Naiqama (112) in Newcastle’s NSW Cup team.

Richie Fa’aoso (130) has spent the past two games in NSW Cup before winning a recall this week. Junior Sa’u (85) has been up and down the grades all year.

Most clubs have an array of tyros biding their time in second grade, waiting for a promotion, and Newcastle are no exception.

Occasionally senior players on lucrative NRL salaries will play in reserve grade, when they return from injuries and need to bolster their match fitness, or when the coach is reluctant to tinker with a winning line-up.

But when established NRL stars are regularly being chosen in the ‘‘reggies’’, that suggests something is fundamentally wrong.

For Fa’aoso and Tuimavave, who are both off-contract, the portents appear ominous. They are playing for their careers.

Taia has already signed to join Catalans Dragons at season’s end.

The real intrigue surrounds Hilder, Naiqama and Sa’u, who are all under contract next season and, in Naiqama’s case, until the end of 2014.

Hilder, Naiqama and Sa’u all re-signed last year – after Bennett’s appointment.

In other words, 12 months ago the master coach rated them sufficiently to offer two- and three-year deals.

Now he appears unsure if they are up to the job.

It is a confusing situation, for both players, fans and, presumably, the master coach himself.

The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that if Newcastle win the NSW Cup grand final this season, don’t expect Wayne Bennett to join them on a lap of honour.

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