Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Are the Knights gone for 2017 without Mullen?

Jarrod Mullen's career looks to be over.
(Photo: Newcastle Herald)
Jarrod Mullen’s surprising positive test to steroids has rocked the Newcastle Knights and will likely put their rebuild under Nathan Brown at stake.

Or will it?
At first glance, it’s easy to suggest the Knights will again flail to another wooden spoon without their most senior player and linchpin, Mullen.
A stalwart at the club since the retirement of Andrew Johns, Mullen has had no other association with first-grade rugby league outside of the Knights.
While many have questioned his ability to live up to expectations and fulfill his potential, there is no argument about Mullen not giving his all to his hometown club.
His loss, if it is indeed the end of his career, will leave a gaping hole in Nathan Brown’s squad. Outside of Dane Gagai (112), Rory Kostjasyn (126), Jamie Buhrer (128) and Trent Hodkinson (139), no other player in the Knight’s squad has played over 100 NRL games.
While not part of the Knights’ captaincy set-up in 2016, Mullen’s position and place amongst his teammates ensured he was a leader in the side. 
Unable to maintain his spot in the side last year because of injury, Mullen never got to establish a successful and effective combination with fellow half Trent Hodkinson.
With the majority of playmaking decisions falling on Hodkinson in 2016, the Knights rarely looked dangerous, finishing the season with just one win and draw.
However, in Mullen’s absence, Nathan Brown was able to blood a host of players across various positions.
Crucially, future halves prospects: Jack Cogger, Jaylen Feeney, and Brock Lamb, were able to find their feet in the top grade.
While Feeney was experimented with in the outside backs, Cogger and Lamb were used predominately in the five-eighth position.
Cogger, who made six appearances, showed steadiness and class beyond his youthful 18 years of age.
He looked the most at-home alongside the experienced Hodkinson and was able to set-up a number of opportunities in his short, but now vital game-time.
So will the loss of Mullen slow the Knights’ transformation from cellar-dwellers to a competitive side down?
It’s unlikely given Mullen’s career was on the decline and the trio of youngsters was on the rise, but how it affects the squad not having their most-experienced player alongside them will remain to be seen.
Will confidence drop? Will the side’s culture be altered? Will the bond of the players fall away?
Embarking on a long-term project of turning Newcastle around, Nathan Brown has already been preparing for life after Mullen, it’s just come a little earlier than anticipated.

With the NRL’s hottest prospect – Kalyn Ponga – on his way in 2018, maybe a full season for Cogger, Lamb, or Feeney is just what the Knights need.

Maybe moving on from their 211-game veteran that has spent 12 years at the club, is just what the Knights’ proper transition needs.

In a cruel irony, Brown has been increasingly looking for more salary cap space and he may have just found it, albeit in the most disappointing of ways.