REBORN Knights prop Willie Mason has encouraged his off-contract teammates to concentrate on playing better and not let speculation about their futures distract them.
The veteran former NSW and Australian enforcer, who joined his home-town club two months ago, is one of several Newcastle players unsigned beyond this season. Unlike many of those, the Knights are keen to retain Mason, and he hopes to extend his stay.
But whatever their futures hold, Mason has urged all players to stay focused on helping the team end their five-game losing streak against Wests Tigers at Hunter Stadium on Monday night.
The 32-year-old pack leader has been one of the Knights’ most consistent performers since his debut against the Cowboys on May 12, but he said he still had more to offer.
‘‘Obviously people are being told to move on ... but that’s part of rugby league, and I think everybody just really needs to lift,’’ Mason said yesterday.
‘‘Personally, I think I can play a lot better and I’m just looking forward to these next 11 games.’’
Mason was sure he would play on next year but was not certain it would be in Newcastle.
‘‘It’s probably on the back-burner. I know something’s going to happen next year, and I’d love to stay at the Knights, but I’d love to play semi-finals and finish the year off good,’’ he said.
‘‘All those other things, like contracts, all that other stuff, comes with that.
‘‘Newcastle’s been great to me, I’m a Newcastle boy, I love playing for this club, and as I’ve said before I’ve always wanted to play for this club.
‘‘I know what the culture’s like, I know what the people are like, and I’d love to finish my career here, but I’d love to win some games and hopefully finish the year off good.’’
Despite their on-field struggles, Mason said coach Wayne Bennett’s positive attitude had ensured the Knights were sticking together and staying confident.
‘‘We’re a pretty tight bunch up here and it’s really been good to be back and training,’’ he said.
‘‘We’re pretty positive. Wayne keeps us on a level head, he’s very positive himself, and the group’s pretty positive at the moment, regardless of how we’re going.
‘‘I’m looking forward to being a part of a team that everyone’s sort of bagged for the last couple of months, to try to turn things around and be an integral part of that.’’
Mason wants the club’s younger players to take a more active role in helping the Knights turn their season around, and not just be satisfied playing supporting roles to elder statesmen like himself and stand-in skipper Danny Buderus.
‘‘I just tell the boys that you can’t really rely on two old blokes, I suppose, like me and ‘Beds’, to win games. We’re going to show you leadership and we’re going to try to lead the way,’’ said Mason, who won the Clive Churchill Medal in Canterbury’s 2004 premiership-winning team.
‘‘But when I was coming through some really good teams [at the Bulldogs], we had blokes like Pricey [Steve Price] and all these guys I looked up to, and they were leading the way.
‘‘But we always had young guys like Sonny Bill [Williams], Roy Asotasi, Reni Maitua, we had these guys snapping at our heels and wanting our spots.
‘‘We need the young guys here not just being happy to be playing first grade but to be wanting to play intense first grade, rep football, and all this kind of stuff that comes with playing rugby league, and don’t get down on yourself.
‘‘It is rugby league. You have ups and downs and we live on a roller-coaster. It’s ups and downs, you win games you lose games, but the main thing is to remain positive and to stick together.’’
Twenty-year-old forward Alex McKinnon agreed, saying he did not want to be ‘‘a passenger’’.
‘‘You can easily sit there for the ride, just sit on the bench, and get through your game. But like I said to Wayne, I’m not a person like that,’’ McKinnon said.
‘‘Even though I’m young, I want to contribute and I want to play good.
‘‘I always look at players that are coming through, like [Brisbane’s] Alex Glenn, and I want to be like them, and it frustrates me why I’m not.
‘‘Wayne says give it a few years but I just need to keep improving on my little things and hopefully I can improve and get better.’’
McKinnon said he spent much of last week reflecting on the team’s slump.
‘‘All I can worry about is my game, Willie can worry about his game, everyone worries about their own game,’’ he said.
‘‘That’s what we’re not doing right, I think – not that I know anything – but we just need to worry about our own game and we’ll improve from there.’’