AS Knights officials weigh up whether to make an all-out bid for Gold Coast enforcer Greg Bird, Sporting Declaration has been reflecting on Trent Hodkinson.
Hodkinson joined Newcastle from the Bulldogs 12 months ago as the incumbent NSW Origin halfback and, presumably, the club’s highest-paid player.
He attracted his share of criticism this season, much of which I felt was a tad harsh. It’s a well-established theory that a No.7 is only as good as his forwards, and Hodkinson has never struck me as one of those playmakers who dominates games, like a Johns, Thurston or Cronk.
He’s steady, reliable, a cool customer and one of the best goalkickers in the NRL. All things considered, I reckon Hodkinson played about as well as could be expected, given the circumstances.
It might not have improved Newcastle’s on-field results, but the area in which Hodkinson received top marks was as a role model.
In his free time, he visited sick children in hospital of his own volition. He was an ambassador for the RSPCA.
He was named clubman of the year at Newcastle’s presentation night, and in 2014 he won the NRL’s prestigious Ken Stephen Medal for services in the community.
Articulate and mindful of his obligations, he is an example for all his teammates.
If all players could replicate his squeaky-clean persona, rugby league clubs would never have to worry about scandalous misbehaviour.
All of which brings me back to Bird, whose reputation is in stark contrast.
It’s not hard to see why Knights coach Nathan Brown has identified Bird as the club’s No.1 recruitment target for next season.
For most of 2016, it seemed Brown’s young Knights were turning up for a gunfight carrying slingshots. Signing Bird would allow them to roll out a Sherman tank.
Yet events over the past week are a reminder that recruiting Bird would be a gamble.
The allegations, at first glance, do not appear to be hangable offences.
On a buck’s party last weekend, Bird was allegedly asked to leave one establishment because he was in a tired-and-emotional state.
He also admitted that he intervened when one of his mates became involved in a “physical altercation” with security staff at another premises, but insists he was merely trying to keep the peace. Nonetheless, police and the NRL’s integrity unit were reported to be investigating both incidents.
Meanwhile, Knights officials are anxiously monitoring the outcome of all this. Bird is under contract to the Gold Coast for 2016, but Newcastle have made no secret of their desire to lure the Maitland product home next season.
All bets, however, could be off if any wrongdoing on Bird’s behalf can be verified. As Knights chairman Brian McGuigan told the Herald this week: “if he has transgressed, that would not stand him in great stead for our directors to agree to any acquisition of him.’’
The untimely controversy has created a dilemma for coach Brown.
Much as Brown might feel inclined to give Bird the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the headlines of the past few days are little more than a media beat-up, there is the issue of consistency to consider.
When Brown first arrived in Newcastle 12 months ago, he was quick to impose stringent disciplinary standards.
Jarrod Mullen had a few drinks at the club Christmas party when he was supposed to be nursing a minor injury, and as penance was stood down from the club’s main trial match.
Sione Mata’utia was late arriving for a pre-season training session, and was duly selected in under-20s instead of first grade.
Both breaches appeared relatively innocuous.
There was certainly no talk of the police or NRL integrity unit becoming involved.
So if Newcastle’s powers-that-be were to downplay Bird’s antics last weekend and proceed with their attempt to sign him, some may query if the same rules and protocols apply across the board.
And while Brown might have formed the opinion that Bird is “one of many players that have had some indiscretions but have changed as they’ve matured and married and have had kids”, history suggests the 17-Test veteran has an uncanny knack of landing in hot water.
I was interested to watch a Foxtel interview this week with Brown’s former teammate Matthew Elliott, the ex-Canberra, Penrith and Warriors coach. Elliott said someone wise once told him “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’’ and declared Bird’s conduct had become “a bit of a trend’’.
He noted Bird was a senior player and, as such, expected to lead by example, on and off the field. “At some point you have to ask how it impacts on the culture of the organisation … if you do that [misbehave] it basically validates all people doing the same thing,’’ Elliott said.
Asked if, as a coach, he would consider signing Bird, Elliott said he would be reluctant to do so “unless we were in a really bad place’’.
The Knights, admittedly, are in a really bad place.
Bad enough to pin their hopes on Greg Bird is open to debate.