IN an ideal world, the Knights would like Sione Mata’utia to lead their team for the next decade.
But concern about their co-captain’s history of concussions has prompted Newcastle officials to defer contract talks that would have kept him at the club for three further seasons.
Mata’utia is off contract at the end of 2018 and, as of Wednesday, is officially free to start fielding offers from rival clubs.
The Knights were initially keen to re-sign him before he felt any desire to explore other options, holding preliminary talks about an extension until at least the end of 2021.
But the situation became complicated after the head knock he received playing against Melbourne on August 19 – his fifth known concussion of the past two seasons.
The 21-year-old back-rower was subsequently stood down from Newcastle’s last two games of the season, on medical advice, and was a last-minute withdrawal from the Samoan side for the World Cup.
He will resume training with Newcastle next week but will have to wait a further three weeks to learn if he is able to participate in contact sessions.
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Given the circumstances, the Wests Group – who assume sole ownership of the Knights next week – are wary about making a long-term, multi-million dollar investment until they feel confident about Mata’utia’s longevity.
“It’s a huge issue for Sione personally, and it’s a big issue for the club as well … we need to look after Sione the best we possibly can in all this, but we need to make sure he is right [to play],” Wests chief executive Phil Gardner told Fairfax Media.
The Knights have already had to deal with two high-profile dramas involving concussion this season.
Former Newcastle winger James McManus announced in February he was suing the club in the Supreme Court over a series of incidents he alleges left him with a “traumatic” brain injury.
In addition, Newcastle were fined $50,000 in March for failing to take fullback Brendan Elliot from the field for a head-injury assessment after a high tackle playing against South Sydney.
“This whole business about concussion and career-ending injuries is a very complex area that we need to tread very carefully with,” Gardner said.
Wests Group’s board of directors were so concerned about the McManus lawsuit that, before agreeing to accept ownership of the Knights, they insisted the NRL offer indemnity against any historic cases involving concussion.
“Regardless of any culpability issues, you have to look after these guys,’’ Gardner said. “We need to be very careful to ensure the health and safety of the players.”
The Knights have access to two world-renowned neurological experts in Professor Chris Levi and Dr Andrew Gardner, and flew Mata’utia to Melbourne in September for a further assessment from Professor Paul McCrory.
Knights coach Nathan Brown said all the feedback from the specialists was “far more positive than negative” and was optimistic Mata’utia would enjoy a long career.
“Sione is definitely a player we would like to build the club around,” Brown said.
“He’s a local junior and we’d like to think he’ll be with the Knights for the long term.
“But after what he’s been through, and also what the club has been through with the James McManus situation, obviously when it comes to Sione getting back on the field, it’s probably in both parties’ best interests to just monitor the situation.
“Once he gets back playing, fingers crossed, hopefully everything’s OK.”
Brown said the club and Mata’utia had made a mutual “business decision” to defer further negotiations but added: “I think if everything goes well, there is a deal there to be done.”
He accepted that, by waiting, it might allow rival clubs to bid for Mata’utia, who in 2014 became the youngest-ever Kangaroo at 18 and played in three Tests during Australia’s Four Nations campaign.
“I’d be surprised if other clubs weren’t interested,” Brown said.
Mata’utia appeared unconcerned about the issue when contacted on Thursday by Fairfax Media.
“I should be all right,” he said. “I’ve had a few medical people checking in, I trust the medical department of the club a lot. It should be all good."