HE felt a bit like a fish out of water at the NRL Captains Call on Sydney Harbour on Monday but Knights playmaker Jarrod Mullen has been anything but out of his depth in the role of skipper.
Taking his place alongside the seven other finals skippers on board HMAS Leeuwin at the Royal Australian Navy’s base at Garden Island, Mullen said he was only keeping the seat warm for club captain Kurt Gidley, who is nursing a season-ending left-foot injury.
Mullen will captain the Knights against the Bulldogs, the 2012 minor premiers and grand final runners-up, in an elimination final at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.
‘‘Obviously I’ve been captain by default with Gids being out, but I’ve really been soaking up the experience and I’m really looking forward to the game on Sunday,’’ Mullen told the Newcastle Herald.
The 26-year-old former NSW half was not even included in the Knights’ five-man leadership group unveiled at the start of the season. That comprised Gidley, Queensland and Australian regular Darius Boyd, and senior forwards Willie Mason, Chris Houston and Jeremy Smith.
But coach Wayne Bennett handed Mullen the reins after Gidley tore a ligament in his right foot against the Warriors on May 26 and was sidelined for eight games.
Mullen retained the leadership duties even when Gidley returned off the bench against the Sharks, Storm and Cowboys last month, so for all intents and purposes, Newcastle’s second-half surge of six wins and a draw from their last 11 games was on his watch.
‘‘Being a half, you’ve always got pressure on your shoulders and you’ve got to lead by example,’’ he said.
‘‘The captaincy, I haven’t really thought of it as a burden, I’ve really grabbed the experience and grabbed the opportunity and turned it into a positive, so I’m really enjoying it at the moment.
‘‘Obviously we’ve got senior players like ‘Bedsy’ [Buderus] and ‘Mase’ [Mason] that do a lot of talking out on the field, and that helps me out definitely.’’
Mullen has enjoyed the most consistent season of a career that began as an 18-year-old in 2005 and has since stretched to 168 matches.
He has played more than 20 games for the sixth straight season, and is tipped to finish in the top 10 in Dally M Medal voting later this month.
When the progressive tally was kept secret after round 16, Mullen was in a three-way tie with South Sydney’s Greg Inglis and John Sutton on 15 points – one behind leader Cooper Cronk.
Mullen, who came off the bench and kicked a deadlock-breaking field goal late in the game, and Buderus are the only survivors from the last Knights team to win an NRL finals match. That was a 25-18 victory over Manly in a 2006 qualifying final at Hunter Stadium.
Since then he has endured season-ending finals losses to Brisbane (2006), Canterbury (2009) and Melbourne (2011), and by finishing seventh the Knights will again be in sudden-death mode against the Bulldogs on Sunday.
‘‘I don’t think it’s frustrating. I think it’s very pleasing that we’re in the finals to start off with,’’ he said.
‘‘We set a goal at the start of the year to be in the eight, and here we are, and it’s a whole different ball game now. It’s sudden-death for us so we’ve just got to keep winning games and hopefully keep going all the way.’’
Mullen was confident of lining up against the Bulldogs, who the Knights have beaten twice this year, despite suffering a right-ankle injury in the 20th minute of Newcastle’s 54-6 victory over Parramatta at Hunter Stadium last Sunday.
He recovered to complete the game without incident, finishing off by sprinting away in the 78th minute to score the last of Newcastle’s 10 tries.
‘‘They’ll be very fired up to come out and beat us because we did beat them twice during the year, but we’ll have a game plan for Sunday and hopefully we can execute that,’’ he said.
Canterbury Bulldogs captain Michael Ennis never doubted his team would make the NRL finals despite their many on and off-field tribulations and says their expectations are probably greater than last year.
The 2012 minor premiers and losing grand finalists have had anything but a smooth passage this year.
Injuries and suspensions ravaged them in the early weeks of the season, while the off-field dramas surrounding 2012 Dally M Player of the Year Ben Barba created potentially distracting headlines at the start and end of the campaign.
The Bulldogs made a 1-5 start, but hooker Ennis never lost faith in the club’s ability.
‘‘No, I always believed in the roster and the staff that we’ve got there and where we were heading,’’ Ennis told AAP on Monday.
‘‘We just needed to get it together and we’ve done enough to get here, but we’ve just got to do something about it now.’’
A mid-season run of seven wins from eight games propelled them up the ladder, though they lost three of their last five.
While the Bulldogs were forced to settle for sixth spot and a first-week elimination final against Newcastle, Ennis stressed the players expectations were no lower than they had been last year.
‘‘The expectation from the playing group is probably more (than last season), knowing what we can play to, I suppose,’’ Ennis said.
‘‘We know that we can achieve it if we get it together and we’ve just got to be very good for the next month.’’
Immediately standing in their way is a Newcastle side that beat them twice this year, with a 44-8 hiding at Hunter Stadium, among the Bulldogs 2013 lowlights.
‘‘They are a side that’s very capable and have plenty of experience, and plenty of strikepower,’’ Ennis said of Newcastle.
‘‘They are a a really well balanced side, they’ve got that experience with (Willie) Mason and (Jeremy) Smith and (Danny) Buderus in amongst their pack, and Beau Scott.
‘‘Their halves are clever. (Tyrone) Roberts is an up and comer who has had a great season. (Jarrod) Mullen is very very good.
‘‘Then their outside backs are as good as any in the comp, so it’s going to be very tough for us.’’