PROMISING prospect Peter Mata’utia is ready to put a forgettable first half of the season behind him and earn a permanent spot in the NRL backline after being named at fullback for the Knights against Canberra at Hunter Stadium on Saturday night.
The former Australian Schoolboys and NSW under-18 representative will replace Darius Boyd, who as expected retained his place on the Queensland left wing for the second State of Origin game at ANZ Stadium next Wednesday.
Kevin Naiqama will make his second appearance this season, replacing NSW winger Aku Uate, and former Brisbane utility back Dane Gagai was named to make his Knights debut.
The Broncos delayed Gagai’s clearance so Knights coach Wayne Bennett could not select him to play against his former club at Suncorp Stadium last Sunday, but the formal paperwork has been processed and the official release was granted yesterday.
The 21-year-old former Junior Kangaroos representative was named in the centres to replace Junior Sa’u, who was dropped to a five-man bench as 18th man.
The eldest of four brothers at the Knights, 21-year-old Mata’utia made his NRL debut among five appearances last season and had impressed Bennett at pre-season training until he broke down with a knee injury in January.
Mata’utia found himself in hot water off the field two months later when he was arrested after an altercation with a family member in Darby St, taken to Newcastle police station, and could not be interviewed because he was too intoxicated.
Police did not lay charges but it was not the first time Mata’utia had breached the club’s disciplinary code. Bennett issued a stern rebuke and final warning.
‘‘He’s walked out of here today knowing absolutely what the consequences will be if he steps out of line again,’’ Knights chief executive Matt Gidley told the Newcastle Herald on March 20.
Bennett has been keen to give Mata’utia and Naiqama a run in first grade.
In a pre-season interview with former Knights captain and coach Michael Hagan, Bennett said: ‘‘Kevin Naiqama has been outstanding at training, I think he has been very good. Peter Mata’utia was really on top of it all until he got an injury.’’
Bennett told the Herald last week that he had ‘‘a big rap’’ on Mata’utia ‘‘but he got a bad injury in the pre-season and he’s been months behind everybody, and he’s just starting to find a bit of form now.’’
Though no one expects Mata’utia to keep Boyd out of the No.1 jersey when he returns from Origin duty, the goal-kicking Raymond Terrace junior could be retained somewhere else in the backline if he makes the most of his chance against Canberra.
Former New Zealand Test back-rower Zeb Taia was recalled to the bench for the game against the Raiders after playing in Newcastle’s 32-18 victory over Auckland in a NSW Cup game at Townson Oval last Saturday.
Taia replaces prop Richie Fa’aoso, who scored the last of Newcastle’s four tries in their 50-24 loss to the Broncos last Sunday.
Fa’aoso will join former NRL teammates Matt Hilder and Evarn Tuimavave in a star-studded NSW Cup front row against Wests Magpies at Campbelltown on Saturday.
Wes Naiqama, a late replacement last Sunday for virus-stricken centre Timana Tahu, will make way for Tahu’s return and play fullback in the NSW Cup team.
Former Knights junior Dane Tilse was named to replace Queensland Origin representative David Shillington in Canberra’s front row, and former NSW fullback Josh Dugan was retained at five-eighth.