SOUTH Newcastle coach Ben Cross knew it was going to take time for Jason Keelan to adjust to playing rugby league again.
A Central junior, Keelan had spent five seasons playing rugby union for Hamilton. A fly-half, he represented NSW Country last season and helped guide the Hawks to consecutive Newcastle and Hunter premierships.
Cross never doubted his pedigree, and now with finals approaching, Keelan is playing his best footy.
The 24-year-old halfback was outstanding in the Lions 52-12 win over Cessnock in a catch-up game at Townson Oval on Saturday.
“It was a calm performance from our halves, especially Jason Keelan,” Cross said. “It was easily the best game he has played since coming back from rugby union. He has always been a half who takes the line on really well. He is a terrific talker and is always telling players where they have to get to. His game management has improved the more he has played.”
Cross was particularly happy with Keelan’s long-rang kicking game
“There wasn’t a lot of wind today,” Cross said. “We had to kick deep and chase hard. We wanted to make sure the opposition was starting their sets inside the 10 metres. We did that a lot.”
Jacob Afflick scored a hat-trick and Lachlan Walmsley crossed for a brace.
“I was confident that if executed well, got on the back of our kick-chase and kept building pressure on Cessnock, we would find some points,” Cross said
The win moved the Lions to 14 points and equal fourth alongside Lakes United. Cessnock are four points back in sixth with two rounds to play.
“We are not resting on our laurels yet,” Cross said. “ We just have to continue playing tough, hard footy.”
Cessnock were still in the match, trailing 20-12 at half-time.
“We knew Cessnock would hold their gloves up,” Cross said.
But the Goannas, who had Kurt Warden, Kody Brooks and Theeran Pearson carrying injuries, faded after the break.
“We are playing a lot of blokes who are wounded and have a lot of blokes missing,” coach Steve Kidd said. “We just weren’t up for it in the second half. Full credit to Souths, their second half was super. They are building nicely and can probably cause some damage in the finals.”
The win came at a cost for Souths with back-rower Ben Roose forced off with a torn hamstring.
“That is him probably gone for the season now,” Cross said “He got put through for a line break and went to put his foot down and grabbed it.”
Meanwhile, Luke Dorn has been appointed captain-coach at Maitland next season.