HE started the year as a fringe first-grader with six NRL games to his name – all off the bench.
But after a breakthrough season in which he has strung together nine consecutive appearances and scored four tries, Lachlan Fitzgibbon rates as arguably Newcastle’s most improved player.
Now the home-grown forward has emerged from among a host of off-contract Knights as a priority signing.
His manager met with Knights officials last week, and his eye-catching performance in Saturday’s 26-10 win against the Warriors – which earned him the players’ player award from his teammates – has only enhanced his bargaining power.
“We’d love to keep Fitzy, to be honest with you,’’ Knights coach Nathan Brown said.
“We’ve got an offer out there for Fitzy.
“These things obviously don’t always happen quickly, but he’s certainly a player out of the ones who are off contract that we’ve put an offer to, and we’d love to have him around.
“We feel his best footy is still ahead of him.”
Brown labelled the towering back-rower’s 80-minute effort against the Warriors, in which he carried the ball 107 metres, made 35 tackles and scored a runaway try, as “his best all-round game”.
He said it was even more impressive as Fitzgibbon suffered a leg injury yet played through the pain barrier.
“Obviously he’s been a really improved player for us this year, Fitzy,’’ Brown said.
The 23-year-old’s progress in 2017 has been a reward for persistence.
He spent two years in the Knights’ under-20s, but at one point was sent back to his junior club, South Newcastle, after struggling for form and self-belief.
Fitzgibbon said playing in the NRL was “a big confidence game” but added: “I always knew I had it in me.
“It was all about getting an opportunity and playing some good footy.
“Off the back of the boys playing well, whenever I’m needed this year I’ve just tried to rip in and do my best.
“Collectively I think we’re doing a good job.”
He said he was “in the process at the moment, just trying to sort out what I am doing next year’’ but trying to stay focused on Newcastle’s final four games.
“I just want to play in every one of those games and whatever happens off the back of that, happens,” he said.