RELIABLE rover Matt Hilder used Newcastle's bye last weekend to catch up with some of his old Cronulla teammates during a trip home to the Sutherland Shire.
Hilder, who turned 26 yesterday, will do likewise at EnergyAustralia Stadium on Saturday, when the Knights host the Gold Coast Titans, but the exchanges will be less cordial.
The unassuming utility was born and bred in the Shire, graduating from Cronulla-Caringbah juniors and playing 81 first-grade matches in four seasons at the Sharks (2003-06) before joining the Titans last year for 19 games in their inaugural NRL campaign.
Hilder said he was not at the Gold Coast long enough to forge any strong bonds but hoped his inside knowledge would help the Knights upset the early pacesetters, who have won six of seven to lead the competition.
"I know most of the blokes up there, so I know what they're capabilities are, but there'll be no emotional ties or anything," Hilder said.
"They're sort of doing the same things we were doing last year, but they're just doing them a bit better at the moment.
"People have asked me if I thought they'd go any good this year, and I've just said, 'They might go all right, but I reckon they'll be even better and a real contender in a couple of years,' but they're going pretty well now.
"They're just playing with a lot of enthusiasm and the coach [John Cartwright] has got them going really well."
Though he is at his third coastal club in as many seasons, Hilder hopes to call Newcastle home for at least another few years.
With a two-year contract in his back pocket, he was the first of the Knights' 2008 recruits to relocate, arriving last September and quickly settling into his house at Speers Point with his fiancee Natalie and their daughter Indy.
Natalie became his wife a few weeks later when they were married on the South Coast and, in the next two months, they will welcome a baby brother or sister to two-year-old Indy.
"We're definitely looking to hang around for a while if we can," Hilder said.
"Whatever happens, happens . . . but we're definitely here until the end of next year, and hopefully we can get a couple more years in after that. That would be good."
Hilder has missed just one game since joining the Knights. He was ruled out on the morning of their 34-22 loss to Brisbane three weeks ago because of a mysterious neurological condition that disappeared as quickly as it emerged.
"All the symptoms are gone now. It was just a little something, I don't even know what, but I'm all right now," Hilder said.
Apart from that health hiccup, Hilder has been a consistent contributor off the bench by plugging holes in and around the ruck and carting the ball as a back-rower or dummy-half.
He has become accustomed to his interchange role, but coach Brian Smith plans starting him at hooker to replace captain Danny Buderus during the representative season.
"He's been doing that job off the bench really well for us," Smith said.
"But during this next period he's going to get a go at showing us what he can do to start a game, and it won't surprise me if he makes a few people sit up and take notice. He's worked really hard and he's a quiet achiever, Matty; just the ultimate club and team man."
Hilder said he would happily continue that role when Sharks rake Isaac De Gois arrives next year.
"I was back at Cronulla last weekend and spoke to a few of the Cronulla boys and they all said he's a good bloke, so it will be good to play with him," Hilder said.
"I'm pretty happy doing what I'm doing now. Apart from our last game, I've had a fair bit of game time and I'm enjoying it, so I wouldn't be whinging if I had to do the same thing again next year.
"It keeps it interesting not having to do the same thing every game. It keeps your mind fresh because you're not doing monotonous hit-ups or whatever because I sometimes get pushed to hooker and get to play a bit."
The easygoing Hilder, who rides a Harley-Davidson to and from training, is keeping himself busy away from the game by working on a motorcycle mechanic's apprenticeship.
"I'm doing a bit of work at Graeme Boyd Suzuki when I've got a bit of time off, and I try to go to tech every Wednesday, just part-time, so I can fit it around training," he said.
Though Knights fans are excited about the commitment and competitive spirit the team have shown in the first six rounds, Hilder reckons the best is yet to come.
"We've been pretty steady, but we haven't really excelled too much," he said.
"I think we all know we've got a bit of improvement in us, so that's a good thing.
"We're 50 per cent wins and losses so far but, if we play to our potential, we'll definitely win more than we lose, and hopefully that would put us in the semis."