FOR Lachlan Fitzgibbon, it was much more than a consolation try. It might well have been the launchpad to a long and successful NRL career.
Late in Newcastle’s round-13 clash with Melbourne at AAMI Park, Fitzgibbon won the race to ground a Dane Gagai grubber kick in-goal. It made little difference to the scoreline, which read 40-12 in the Storm’s favour at full-time.
But it was enough for the 23-year-old back-rower to retain his spot in Newcastle’s starting side, and also provided a measure of redemption, after his first-half sin-binning.
At that point, Fitzgibbon had played only eight times in first grade, scoring two tries. Over the next 12 weeks, he would become a mainstay in Newcastle’s pack, scoring seven more tries – the most by any Knights forward since champion hooker Danny Buderus (10) in 2003.
“That was a big game for me,” Fitzgibbon said.
“They were leading the competition and they ended up winning it, so any time you put in a decent performance against the best team, it gives you confidence that you can play at the elite level.”
After debuting with a lone NRL appearance in 2015, Fitzgibbon said he had always believed he could play at first grade “on a consistent basis”. It was just a matter of proving he was worthy of an extended stint.
“The back end of the year, the way the team was playing, I was lucky enough to benefit from that and get across the line a couple of times,” he said.
“I suppose the tries I scored, I didn’t really expect to have that sort of impact, but I managed to string some games together and it turned out to be a good year.
The tries I scored, I didn’t really expect to have that sort of impact.
“Confidence played a big part in it.”
Fitzgibbon showed enough form to earn a two-year contract extension and the unofficial tag of Newcastle’s most improved player.
Not that the former South Newcastle junior is taking anything for granted as he prepares for 2018.
Former Queensland and Kangaroos forward Aidan Guerra has been signed from the Roosters and will almost certainly warrant a starting spot in the back row.
Jamie Buhrer and Sione Mata’utia were Newcastle’s co-captains last season, while Luke Yates and Sam Stone will be looking to build on their debut seasons.
“Competition for spots is always healthy,” he said. “It pushes everyone to the next level. Hopefully with the likes of Aidan, Sione and Jamie Buhrer, it will bring out the best in me.
“Come round one, I’m happy to play wherever I’m picked.”
Meanwhile, as reported in the Newcastle Herald on Tuesday, young forward Pasami Saulo has extended his contract with the Knights until 2020.
The 19-year-old Maitland Pickers junior, a 2016 Australian Schoolboys representative, has signed a two-year extension.