KNIGHTS coach Nathan Brown has admitted Trent Hodkinson has been dropped for form, not injury, saying the skipper was omitted from Saturday’s team to play the Cowboys in Townsville because he was lacking confidence.
Brown said he also wanted to experiment with new combinations – in particular rookie halves Brock Lamb and Jaelen Feeney – to get a gauge for recruitment and retention next season.
"Hodko’s having a bit of a tough time at the minute. He's a touch down on confidence and we've got some other options we want to have a look at," Brown told Sky Sports Radio on Friday.
"We've got a lot of big recruitment decisions we're in the midst to trying to make, and at the end of the day, roster management and getting the balance of your squad right is very important.
“While we certainly want to win games and are trying very hard to win games, and we’re picking the team I suppose you could say certainly based on form, we’re certainly looking at combinations that are going to help with our recruitment.’’
It will be only the second game that Hodkinson has missed since he arrived from Canterbury at the start of last season. Despite a much-publicised knee injury that restricted his pre-season training and requires constant management, the 28-year-old has been remarkably resilient.
It is considered unlikely that he will play in Newcastle’s reserve-grade team against the Bulldogs at Cessnock on Saturday.
It remains to be seen if Hodkinson’s sacking is a wake-up call or a long-term measure. If Lamb and Feeney perform well against the Cowboys, Brown might have no option other than to retain them.
That would create an awkward situation for Hodkinson, given that the former NSW Origin playmaker is not only Newcastle’s club captain but also their highest-paid player.
He has one more season to run on his contract.
In Hodkinson’s absence, Queensland centre Dane Gagai is the most experienced player in Newcastle’s starting side, but 20-year-old back-rower Sione Mata’utia will inherit the captaincy.
Mata’utia will be Newcastle’s youngest captain since Jarrod Mullen in an unfortunate outing against Brisbane in 2007, when the Knights suffered a club-record 71-6 hammering.
North Queensland coach Paul Green said Newcastle's shock decision to drop Hodkinson would not change their plans.
"He [Hodkinson] has won State of Origins, I am sure he will be working hard to get back into the team," Green said.
Green said Jaelen Feeney, a five-game NRL rookie, would be tested.
"Our back-rowers will test any halves that we play against," he said. "But we would like to be testing them right across the park."
The Cowboys will be without champion skipper Johnathan Thurston but showed in last week’s 28-22 loss to the Dragons in Wollongong that they will a daunting proposition for the last-placed Knights.