Mason tackles Manly rivalry head-on

ON July 21, 1995, a 15-year-old Toronto junior named Willie Mason sat on the hill at Hunter Stadium among 32,642 people transfixed as Knights legend Paul Harragon was knocked senseless in a kamikaze collision with Manly prop Mark Carroll.

VIDEO: Willie Mason speaks about the game against Manly on Saturday.

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Video by Darren Pateman

Seventeen years later, Mason will get his first taste of the Newcastle-Manly rivalry when he wears Harragon’s famous No.10 jersey against the Sea Eagles at Turton Road on Saturday night.

The Newcastle Knights take on the Manly Sea Eagles at Hunter Stadium Saturday. The game kicks off at 5.30pm.

‘‘I remember I was at that game when Chief and Spud had that massive collision in ’95,’’ Mason said yesterday.

‘‘I was sitting behind with my Knights jersey on.

‘‘That was a big memory. It’s a bit surreal now that I’ll be donning the No.10 and playing against Manly, so hopefully that doesn’t happen.’’

Mason does not plan a Harragon-Carroll stoush with Manly front-rowers Jason King and Brent Kite on Saturday, but the performance of the former international and his fellow forwards will be central to the Knights’ chances of upsetting the defending premiers.

In NSW representatives Anthony Watmough, Tony Williams and Glenn Stewart, Manly have one of the strongest engine rooms in the NRL.

South Sydney’s big men destroyed the Knights in their 34-14 loss last weekend by creating speed in the ruck. At yesterday’s training session the Knights concentrated on getting three defenders into tackles to slow the Sea Eagles’ forwards.

‘‘It’s just part of the game getting numbers in tackles and slowing that down, because last week we didn’t and we got blown off the field, so that is a big emphasis,’’ Mason said.

The often controversial Mason has been probably the biggest positive aspect in a Newcastle season that has failed to match pre-season expectations.

Considered a gamble by many, the 32-year-old has rewarded coach Wayne Bennett’s faith by providing much-needed size in the middle of the park and leadership off the field.

Mason credits the Knights for extending his career in rugby league and reigniting his love of the sport.

‘‘Obviously not doing a pre-season or anything like that and being overseas for 18months probably rejuvenated and helped me a lot,’’ he said.

‘‘I don’t think if I stayed here after the Cowboys in 2010 that I’d be standing here now.

‘‘I’d be retired.

‘‘A couple of years ago, if you’d asked me, I don’t think I would have wanted to play NRL any more.

‘‘I would have rather been overseas.

‘‘Things happen for a reason and I’ve done a big 360 in my life really.

‘‘I left when I was 16 or 17 and 16 years later I’m playing for the Knights, where I probably should have been 16 years ago.

‘‘I’m just excited. It’s not like I’m a 21-year-old, maybe a 25-year-old.’’

Mason is reported to be on a bargain-basement contract of $40,000, and the former Canterbury, Roosters and Cowboys recruit is said to want another two seasons in the blue and red before retiring.

‘‘Me and Wayne have a good thing going, so I’ve just got to keep playing and those things sort of happen,’’ he said.

‘‘If I was playing like a busted and wasn’t showing anything on the field, Wayne wouldn’t want to sign me, so obviously I’m doing something right and I do want to finish my career here.’’

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