Gagai aims to push on for Knights

DANE Gagai will probably always feel indebted to Wayne Bennett, but the Knights coach clearly feels it was a case of money well spent.

Bennett has described Gagai as the NRL’s ‘‘buy of the season’’ on the strength of his deeds last year, when Newcastle signed him on the rebound after he was shown the door by Brisbane.

Statistics support Bennett’s lofty appraisal.

According to the Contributor Value Ratings system, devised by NRL Stats to measure a player’s  individual input, Gagai was Newcastle’s standout performer during his 12-game stint.

He finished with a  team-high CVR game rating of 405.5. Next best was his right-edge partner, Akuila Uate, with 391.69, then star fullback Darius Boyd on 370.9.

Described as a Moneyball-style data base, the CVR rankings might be confusing to the average rugby league fan.

But Gagai’s impact can be measured in more traditional numbers, as well.

In his 12 games, he scored five tries and threw the final pass for six others. He played alongside Uate in 11 of those games and the Test winger crossed for 12 four-pointers.

Operating in tandem, Gagai and Uate scored 16 tries between them – a strike rate that rekindled memories of Matt Gidley’s famous right-edge pairings with Darren Albert and Timana Tahu.

Gagai joked yesterday that playing alongside Uate made his job easy, but the 21-year-old’s fancy feet and flick passes were weapons in their own right.

‘‘When I came here, we seemed to get along fairly well, and having someone like Aku outside you, he’s always going to make you look good,’’ Gagai said.

‘‘There was a few times there where I didn’t do too much but throw him the ball, and he just did everything from there. But it is a privilege to play inside someone like Aku and I’ve just been grateful for every moment.’’

The flyer from Mackay exceeded his own expectations after arriving in Newcastle last season with just six NRL games to his name.

Shattered after being let go by the Broncos, he said one meeting at Bennett’s house in Brisbane  convinced him his future lay in Newcastle.

‘‘I didn’t expect him to pick me straight away. That was just a bonus,’’ he said.

‘‘He pretty much chucked me in the deep end and I didn’t want to let him down ... he’s just been a great mentor and really helped me develop as a player and a person.’’

The L-plate flyer hopes a full preseason with his Knights teammates will be his launchpad for bigger and better things this year.

‘‘I look back on last year as a positive but a learning thing as well,’’ he said. ‘‘I came halfway through the season and I hadn’t played in the centres in first grade before.

‘‘I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’ve been working on the little things. I’m feeling fit and strong and looking forward to the trials.’’

Contracted for two more seasons, Gagai recently welcomed his younger brother Jacob to Newcastle. 

‘‘He’s still only 17 and he’s playing SG Ball,’’ he said.

‘‘He plays in the halves and he’s been going well. 

‘‘It’s been awesome having him here, having a family member living with me.

‘‘I still get a bit homesick, but I try to get back to Mackay as much as I can.’’

  AAP reports:  Debate may have raged over Kevin Sinfield’s controversial Golden Boot win, but it seems the Leeds captain wants it settled once and for all in next month’s World Club Challenge clash with NRL champions Melbourne.

Sinfield has taken no comfort from Billy Slater’s withdrawal from next month’s NRL season-opening All Stars clash in Brisbane, saying he wants to face a full-strength Storm on February 22 to test himself against the best before the 2013 World Cup.

Melbourne boast two players who Sinfield outpointed to take out the unofficial award for the world’s best rugby league player: skipper Cameron Smith and halfback Cooper Cronk. 

But Sinfield clearly still sees former Golden Boot  Slater as a yardstick, all but sending the fullback a get-well-soon card before the WCC at Leeds’ Headingley Stadium.

‘‘He is a fantastic player and it’d be great to play against him again,’’ said Sinfield, who helped Leeds down Melbourne in 2008, only for the Storm to turn the tables in 2010.

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