IT has been the rugby league equivalent of batting after Bradman.
Since the retirement of Andrew Johns more than a decade ago, the Knights have turned over 13 halfbacks, none of whom have come close to replacing the club’s greatest-ever player.
Is Mitchell Pearce the man to fill the void?
Pearce, who started training with the three-time wooden spooners on Monday after signing a four-season, $4-million deal last week, certainly boasts the best CV of all of Joey’s successors.
At 28, he is a veteran of 238 NRL games, 17 Origins and the Roosters’ 2013 grand final triumph.
Many good judges – including Johns himself – believe Pearce’s best football is ahead of him and he will thrive on the responsibility of being Newcastle’s go-to man.
At his first media conference after linking with the Knights, Pearce said the “sky’s the limit” for Nathan Brown’s new-look squad, but he declined to make any specific predictions about how long Newcastle’s resurrection would take.
Asked how much progress he hoped the team would make over the next four years, Pearce replied: “You’d hope we jump a long way up the ladder.
“Obviously it’s my first day here and to come out and say [I have] some sort of expectation of where we’ll end up is ridiculous.”
Pearce said his “No.1 job” would be to familiarise himself with his teammates and the club’s culture.
“From there, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “There’s a bunch of players here who’ve had a lot of experience for young players, mixed in with a few more experienced players.
“Hopefully the more success we have, the more players who will want to come and play for the Newcastle Knights.
“All we can do is focus on being the best we can be until Christmas. Results will take care of themselves if we work hard.”
Pearce said he had “high hopes for this season” and was confident that “we can push a lot of teams this year”, but he stopped short of predicting Newcastle were aiming to make the play-offs.
“It’s ridiculous to make a statement like that, so far,” he said. “But I really believe in the talent we’ve got here. The young boys have had two years where they’ve had to work really hard, at the bottom of the ladder.
“We just take each day as it comes, have no limits and see how it goes.”
Pearce played down any interest he might have in captaining Newcastle next season.
“I haven’t thought about that,” he said. “My job is to fit into the culture and earn the trust of my teammates before any of that sort of stuff.”
Chased by Manly and Cronulla after announcing last month he was leaving the Roosters, Pearce said a meeting last week with coach Brown, football manager Darren Mooney and chief executive Phil Gardner left him convinced Newcastle was his best option.
He also took on board advice from “a lot of people I respect”, in particular the Johns brothers and Danny Buderus, who vouched for Newcastle from a football and lifestyle perspective.
“The big thing for me was just being part of what the Knights are building,” he said. “Obviously when I left the Roosters, I had an open mind about where I wanted to play.
“But when I came to Newcastle, I actually called Dad on the way home and said there’s something special [in Newcastle]. The club’s building a really good place.
“I see myself as a point in my career where I’m excited to take that leadership role and be a part of it.”
Pearce was looking forward to working with incumbent playmaker Brock Lamb, who has been linked to Manly.
Lamb, the 20-year-old from Maitland, faces a battle to hang onto his top-grade position after Newcastle’s decision to sign Pearce and another ex-Rooster, Connor Watson, who are likely to start next season in the halves.
“I’d love Brock to stay,” Pearce said. “Before I came here, I was a big fan of the way he played.
“For a 20-year-old, the way he’s played in a team that was down the bottom of the ladder, he’s a real standout.
“He’s got a massive future, he’s a local junior, and I’d love to form some sort of combination with him.”
“There’s a bit of competition in the halves there.
“I think Brock’s a great player. Obviously Connor and Ponga are there and there’s Jack Cogger, as well.
“There’s some really good depth there and they’re all young boys. Competition’s a good thing.”
KNIGHTS HALFBACKS SINCE ANDREW JOHNS