MITCH Cullen overcame injury, finished out of position and put his hand up for another NSW Pioneers jersey as a depleted Newcastle Rebels evened the ledger with Ron Massey Cup in Saturday's representative fixture at Maitland Sportsground.
The hosts beat the Sydney-based squad 30-20 and Cullen stood out for the Rebels, who only had one player left on the bench for the last 15 minutes.
Rebels lock Cullen, who picked up players' player and the coach's award, came off the field midway through the second half with a corked hip but returned shortly after as hooker following an injury to captain Alex Langbridge (knee).
"Mitch Cullen went back on and filled the void at hooker," Rebels coach Matt Lantry said.
"He received the coach's award and players' player. [Fullback] Sam Keenan got a hat-trick, [second-rower] Jake Lawrence was outstanding and Alex Langbridge had a real captain's knock."
Newcastle led 20-18 at half-time after conceding the first and third tries. Kennan's hat-trick, when up 22-20, sealed the result on the hour mark.
Ron Massey Cup won last year's corresponding match with the Rebels by 20-14 at the same venue.
Lantry praised the effort of his troops in 2019.
"It was quite a physical affair," the Newcastle mentor said.
"They were big and fast and almost blew us off the park in the first 10 minutes.
"In the end the way we defended was the difference between winning and losing.
"We were quite desperate and willing to do whatever it took to stop a line break or a try."
Rebels winger Matt Hay suffered a groin injury just before half-time, hooker Langbridge did some ligament damage and centre Tyme Dow-Nikau failed a HIA with 15 minutes left.
"We were down troops in the second half," Lantry said.
"We only had three on the bench at the break, the final quarter we had two and the last 15 [minutes] we only had one."
Lantry will now be appointed coach of the NSW Pioneers, who travel to meet the Queensland Rangers on June 30.
Lantry and Pioneers assistant Jarred Farlow, who looked after Ron Massey Cup, are expected to select the combined side in the coming weeks after reviewing video of the encounter.
Langbridge may have a case to answer for a high tackle in the 43rd minute.
Meanwhile, Newcastle RL competition resumes this Saturday and Sunday after a weekend off with Kurri hosting Maitland, Cessnock away to Central (May 18), Souths meet Wests at Townson Oval and Macquarie visit Lakes (May 19).
NEWCASTLE 30 (Sam Keenan 3, Jake Lawrence 2, Mitch Cullen tries; Chad O'Donnell, Ryan Walsh conversions; O'Donnell penalty) defeated RON MASSEY CUP 20 (Jerry Key, Patrick Hollis, Maliko Filino, Matt Place tries; Harrison Siejka 2 conversions)