Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

DAZED AND CONFUSED: Sione Mata'utia receives treatment after a head knock this season. He has suffered multiple concussions in the past two years.
DAZED AND CONFUSED: Sione Mata'utia receives treatment after a head knock this season. He has suffered multiple concussions in the past two years.

The club will make no further comment at this stage.

Any time a statement on the Newcastle Knights’ website culminates in that paragraph, Sporting Declaration can’t help suspecting that there must be more to the story. Further information, in other words, that Knights officials would prefer to keep under wraps.

It’s the equivalent of saying: “Move on please, there’s nothing to see here, and for goodness sake don’t bother us with awkward questions, because it’s none of your business.”

The “no further comment” line seemed to be trotted out on a weekly basis during Nathan Tinkler’s reign of error. Ever since then, almost as a default reaction, it continues to pique my curiosity, although maybe I’m too eager to subscribe to a conspiracy theory.

There haven’t been many “no further comment” episodes in recent times, which is perhaps why I was surprised last week to find it as a footnote to a media release confirming Knights co-captain Sione Mata’utia had been “rested” from representing Samoa at the World Cup “as a precaution”.

The Knights certainly left it until late in the piece to rule out Mata’utia and new signing Tautau Moga. Samoa had actually named both in their squad, only to receive belated notification that neither were available.

“It’s disappointing when a player tells you the night before you pick the team he’s fine and then they pull out after talking to their club,” Samoa coach Matt Parish said last week. “I don’t want to be too critical of Newcastle but ...”

Parish added that Samoan officials ”were led to believe both players were fit”.

In the case of Moga, who this week posted a photo on social media of himself recovering in hospital after shoulder surgery, it would appear Parish may have underestimated the former Brisbane centre’s injury.

The Mata’utia situation is far more complex.

The dynamic back-rower was stood down from Newcastle’s final two matches of 2017, after suffering a head knock playing against Melbourne – his fifth known concussion of the past two seasons.

It was expected he would be cleared for the World Cup, on the basis that there would be a nine-week gap between his last game for Newcastle and Samoa’s tournament opener.

But after an array of scans and consultations with specialists in Newcastle and Melbourne, the Knights pulled him out.

Given that Mata’utia felt it was “ridiculous” that he was not allowed to play in the final two rounds of the NRL season, after he had apparently complied with concussion protocols, it would seem fair to assume he is frustrated about missing the World Cup, especially as it might have been his last chance to play alongside his elder brother Peter, who has signed with Leigh Centurions.

If Newcastle have erred on the side of caution to safeguard Mata’utia’s welfare, that would appear a sensible policy. But the bottom line is that if there was nothing wrong with him, he would be playing for Samoa.

And therein lies the dilemma for Knights officials, and perhaps the reason behind their “no further comment” position.

Mata’utia rates as arguably Newcastle’s most valuable playing asset.

He is the youngest-ever Kangaroos representative and no 21-year-old in the NRL can match his tally of 67 first-grade games. He has the potential to become one of the great players of his generation, someone who can lead Newcastle into a new golden era.

Off contract at the end of next season, preliminary talks about an extension reportedly kicked off months ago. In normal circumstances, Knights officials would be eager to tie him up to a new, long-term deal as soon as possible. But now there is more to consider than just his on-field ability.

The Wests Group have already shown their concern about the issue of concussion and liability, demanding, before they agreed to take over the Knights, that the NRL indemnify them against any historic cases.

In particular, they were referring to James McManus, who is suing the Knights in the Supreme Court for their handling of a number of career-ending concussions that he claims left him with a “traumatic” brain injury.

As of November 1, Wests will be sole owners of the Knights and Mata’utia’s next contract will be signed on their watch.

Nobody can be sure when, or if, he will be troubled by concussion again. Hopefully he enjoys a long and prosperous career and some point gets to hold aloft a premiership trophy for the Knights.

But what if, in the first game next season, he is again knocked out? What if, as was the case with McManus and other players such as Liam Fulton and Nigel Plum, the cumulative effects of head knocks prematurely curtail his career? 

It’s a worst-case scenario Wests will surely have to consider because, as was shown when Anthony Watmough retired at Parramatta, insurance companies are loath to offer payouts if they can establish evidence of a pre-existing condition.

All of which must be a concern for Knights management on a number of fronts. And while “no further comment” is their public position, behind the scenes it is likely a top topic of conversation.