FOR most of his career, he has been one of the first players named in Newcastle’s starting line-up.
Now Sione Mata’utia faces the rare challenge of re-establishing himself in the first XIII after Knights coach Nathan Brown revealed the 2014 Kangaroo would be switching to the back row next season.
Mata’utia played 23 games as Newcastle’s right-side centre last season, but outstanding prospect Jesse Ramien has been recruited from Cronulla specifically to fill that role.
That leaves Mata’utia among a logjam of candidates, including Mitch Barnett, Aidan Guerra, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Jamie Buhrer and Sam Stone, competing among each other for selection in the back row.
“He’ll definitely be in the back row,” Knights coach Nathan Brown said of Mata’utia.
“If Sione’s playing in the centres, that means we’ve had a few injuries.”
If Sione’s playing in the centres, that means we’ve had a few injuries.NATHAN BROWN
Mata’utia kicked off his top-grade career as a winger or fullback in 2014, winning a shock call-up to the Australian Test squad at the age of 18, after just seven NRL games.
Two years later, Brown felt he had more to offer as an edge back-rower, a role he handled until the start of last season, when a lack of alternatives pushed him into the backline.
Now Brown views Ramien and Tautau Moga, who played only four games last season before requiring a knee reconstruction, as his first-choice centres.
There has also been speculation that Newcastle are a chance of signing former Test flyer Michael Jennings from Parramatta.
“Our middle forwards and outside backs are probably the two areas we need to strengthen the most, and if we can do that, Sione will get in the back row, where he enjoys his footy more now, even though he didn’t get to play there last year,” Brown said.
“We’ve certainly got a little bit more competition, which will be great.
“And if Sione is having to be our fourth-string centre or fifth-string centre, our backline is in a stronger position as well.”
It will be no small task for Mata’utia to dislodge Guerra, Barnett or Fitzgibbon, who appeared in 24, 22 and 21 games respectively last season.
Their form was so consistent that only one of Buhrer’s 20 appearances last season was in the starting side, while Stone featured only twice, having played 16 times in 2017.
Meanwhile, new recruits Ramien, Edrick Lee and Tim Glasby will join the Knights on the weekend for a pre-season goal-setting camp to be held at Caves Beach.