FORMER Knights coach Michael Hagan believes Jarrod Mullen finally looks comfortable as the senior partner of his halves combination with Tyrone Roberts.
Mullen, Roberts and fullback Darius Boyd played leading roles in Newcastle’s 24-19 victory over the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium last Saturday night and will be expected to do likewise against the Raiders at Canberra Stadium on Sunday.
The win against the Warriors was Mullen’s first in Auckland and Newcastle’s fourth from their past five games.
This has left the Knights in a five-way logjam on 20 points and within striking distance of the top eight with six games to play.
Aged 25, Mullen is four years older than Roberts and has played 139 NRL games to Roberts’s 19, but Hagan said the former NSW representative had taken time accepting the extra responsibility after captain Kurt Gidley suffered a season-ending shoulder injury three months ago.
Hagan gave Mullen his first taste of the NRL, picking him to make his debut against Wests Tigers in May 2005, just five weeks after his 18th birthday.
The former Newcastle and Parramatta coach has continued to monitor Mullen’s progress in his commentary role calling Knights games for radio station KO-FM.
‘‘Over the last month, his understanding with Tyrone and Darius Boyd has certainly improved in terms of how they work together, and I think he’s assumed a more senior role of the two halves,’’ Hagan said.
‘‘That’s probably what you’d expect, although that probably wasn’t the case eight weeks ago.
‘‘I don’t think they were really sure about who was responsible for what, but I think Jarrod has assumed a bit more of a leadership role in that area.
‘‘And I thought some of his options and his kicks, say in the last month, he’s certainly understood what’s required at critical times very well.
‘‘He’s applied a bit more pressure to the opposition.
‘‘They really needed to be mindful of field position and patience the other night, and I thought that was probably the best example that I’ve seen of that for a long while.’’
Mullen’s deft in-goal grubber kicks twice forced line drop-outs from the Warriors in the final quarter, and he made 19 tackles on Newcastle’s right edge without a miss.
His driving tackle on Warriors winger Omar Slaimankhel resulted in the Pakistan-born rookie forcing a pass that Knights centre Dane Gagai intercepted and returned 70metres to score the go-ahead try in the 61st minute.
‘‘That’s probably been a pretty strong part of his game for most of the year,’’ Hagan said of Mullen’s defence.
‘‘Blokes do get targeted on the edge but I must say that Chris Houston has provided very good support for him on that side of the field.
‘‘And he’s developed a better understanding on that side of the field with Dane Gagai and Aku Uate.
‘‘Attack wise, they recognise that there’s some real strike there.’’
Hagan, who as Queensland’s assistant coach worked closely with Boyd during the State of Origin series, said the 2010 Clive Churchill medallist was playing the way most pundits and punters expected him to play when he arrived from the Dragons.
‘‘There’s a bit more stability there, and he’s brought that form from Origin into his work for Newcastle,’’ he said.
The Knights did not suffer any significant injuries against the Warriors, so coach Wayne Bennett is expected to retain the same squad for the game against Canberra.