Joey wins battle for Knights centre spot

Sunday, October 21, 2018

IN: Joey Leilua has been named in the centres to face the Warriors at Hunter Stadium on Saturday.KNIGHTS coach Rick Stone has opted for size and experience ahead of unlimited potential by omitting incumbent Test winger Sione Mata’utia from Saturday’s season-opener against the Warriors at Hunter Stadium.

In what must rate as the most agonising selection dilemma of his career, Stone preferred Joey Leilua and Dane Gagai as his centres, naming Mata’utia as Newcastle’s standby player in jersey No.18.

Barring a late switch to the nominated squad, the youngest-ever Kangaroos representative and arguably Newcastle’s brightest prospect since Andrew Johns will be a spectator for at least the first-round showdown.

Gagai and Leilua have been Newcastle’s established centre pairing since early in the 2013 season and are seasoned campaigners with 65 and 100 NRL games respectively to their names.

Mata’utia, 18, made his top-grade debut last season, and his seven games, which produced seven tries, were enough to earn him a shock selection in three Tests during Australia’s Four Nations campaign. He scored a try in Australia’s 22-18 loss to New Zealand in the tournament final.

But for the first time since he burst onto the scene in round 20 last season, the young flyer has experienced a reality check.

Given Stone had already endorsed skipper Kurt Gidley and wingers Akuila Uate and James McManus as his back three, he had three players vying for two centre roles.

Gagai, who did not miss a game for the Knights last season and played in the recent All Stars match, was retained as right centre, leaving Stone to weigh up the merits of Leilua and Mata’utia.

Leilua had a lacklustre pre-season but was preferred possibly because he outweighs Mata’utia by 13kilograms and his powerful frame will come in handy against the heavyweight Warriors.

Leilua is expected to mark devastating ball-carrier Konrad Hurrell.

Given he was wearing the green and gold just three months ago, Mata’utia is entitled to be disappointed, but if an interview with the Herald last week is any guide, he is unlikely to sulk.

Speaking at the Knights’ season launch, Mata’utia said there was ‘‘plenty of time to play plenty of first grade’’.

‘‘The guys that have been here for years deserve respect, and I think it is important to learn from them before you get to take hold of the reins,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m pretty young and I reckon I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m going to absorb everything the veterans have to tell me and when it is my time I’ll hopefully be ready.’’

It was a brave decision by Stone, especially as Mata’utia and his two brothers, Chanel and Pat, are embroiled in a contract wrangle after signing letters of intent with Canterbury late last year.

Knights officials remain confident all three siblings will renege on their offers from the Bulldogs to re-sign with Newcastle.

Mata’utia’s omission ensures there is plenty of pressure on Newcastle’s outside backs to perform, because he is capable of playing centre, wing and fullback and is a ready-made replacement for anyone who is injured or under-performing.

There also remains a chance he could be a last-minute inclusion.

Stone indicated on Monday that he would choose his team on a horses-for-courses basis and did not rule out 11th-hour changes to his nominated squad.

‘‘Obviously there’s a couple of key positions we’ve still got to sort out, and we might keep those to game day,’’ Stone said. ‘‘It will be up to us to decide what we think is going to be the best balance and formula for the team on the day against the appropriate opposition.’’

The rest of Stone’s squad was as expected.

Korbin Sims will partner Kade Snowden in the front row, while new signing Jack Stockwell, veterans Chris Houston and David Fa’alogo and versatile rookie Tyler Randell are on the bench.

AAP reports: Team medical officers this season will have sideline access to footage of injuries to help them determine their severity.

Last season was the first in which official concussion protocols were in place, and NRL head of football Todd Greenberg said more work had to be done to change the game’s culture.

Players who suffered head knocks last year had to be withdrawn from the field immediately and have cognitive testing by a medical officer.

But some incidents were missed, and Greenberg said the new technology, which will be accessible in a tent nicknamed the ‘‘injury bubble’’ on the side of the field, would allow doctors to spot anything they might have missed.

‘‘Last year 155 players were assessed,’’ Greenberg said.

‘‘In 67 cases the player did not return to the game. That has been unheard of in previous years. There were also 88 cases where the player was assessed and then allowed to return.

‘‘There will be technology on sidelines for doctors to use high-definition screens to track injury. Doctors can look at this at any time during and after game.’’