KNIGHTS officials will wait for Sione Mata’utia to prove he can string together a number of NRL games before offering him a new contract.
Mata’utia, who is a free agent at the end of this season, missed Newcastle’s final two fixtures last year and was then ruled out of Samoa’s World Cup campaign after suffering his fifth known concussion in the space of 18 months.
After extensive testing and consultation with neurological experts, he has been cleared to resume full-contact training and has participated in two intra-club trials.
He is expected to be named in Newcastle’s squad for their pre-season hit-out against Melbourne at AAMI Park on February 16.
While medical specialists are optimistic that the 21-year-old should have no ongoing problems, the Herald understands Newcastle management have opted to reserve judgement.
Contract talks were put on hold late last year until Mata’utia received a clearance, although it was reported that a three-year deal had been agreed in principle if he can successfully return to the field.
Given that the 2014 Kangaroos representative would command around $600,000 a season, the Wests Group, who assumed ownership of the Knights in November, want to feel convinced that re-signing him is not a risky investment.
By opting to bide their time, they are leaving open the possibility that Mata’utia could receive offers from rival clubs, or that his asking price could increase if he starts the season strongly.
But that appears a gamble they are willing to take.
Knights chief executive Phil Gardner said it was “fantastic news” that Mata’utia was cleared recently to resume full training and he was “a really valuable player for our club”.
Asked when Newcastle hoped to re-sign him, Gardner replied: “Negotiations with Sione are ongoing.”
Knights coach Nathan Brown plans to switch Mata’utia, who shared the captaincy last season with Jamie Buhrer, from back row to centre this season.
That is partly because Brown has a shortage of outside backs at his disposal, but also because Newcastle’s coaching staff believe fatigue has been a contributing factor to Mata’utia’s spate of head knocks.
They hope that by moving him wider, it will reduce his defensive workload.
Ironically, the most serious concussion of Mata’utia’s career, against Melbourne in 2016, occurred while he was playing in the centres.
He has been training on Newcastle’s right edge and is expected to partner Shaun Kenny-Dowall in Newcastle’s trials against Melbourne and Parramatta, in Maitland on February 24.
After starting his career as an outside back, Mata’utia switched to second row midway through 2016.
With 67 NRL games to his name, he is the most experienced 21-year-old in the NRL.
While he has played no further representative football since becoming, at the age of 18 years and 129 days, the youngest-ever Kangaroo in 2014, he was recently named in Brad Fittler’s Emerging Blues squad, along with Newcastle teammates Brock Lamb, Daniel Saifiti and Connor Watson.