Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

UNCERTAINTY: Newcastle Knights skipper Trent Hodkinson is set to play in reserve grade this weekend after being dropped by coach Nathan Brown. Picture: Getty Images AFTER Newcastle’s round-one loss to the Titans on the Gold Coast last season, Sporting Declaration stopped at Jupiters Casino for a beer and a bite to eat.
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Pretty much the first person I bumped into was Tyrone Roberts, who was out with his new scrumbase partner, Ashley Taylor.

I’m not sure if they were having a gamblebut what can be said without doubt, with the benefit of hindsight, is the Titans have backed a winner, albeit by default.

Roberts and Taylor might never have paired up at the Gold Coast, other than for exceptional circumstances.

In 2015, Gold Coast thought they had signed Daly Cherry-Evans, only for the former Test half to renege on the deal at the 11thhour to re-sign with Manly.

In the meantime, the Titans lost five-eighth Aidan Sezer, who agreed to join Canberra.

That left Gold Coast with one half for 2016, rookie Kane Elgey, and as the season progressed, alternative options were few and far between.

In August they took a punt on 20-year-old Taylor, who was yet to play an NRL game for Brisbane. A week or so later they signed Roberts, whose two-year-deal was partially subsidised by a $200,000 payout from Newcastle.

The reason Roberts was available was because, even though he had a year to run on his contract, the Knights had recruited Canterbury and NSW Origin halfback Trent Hodkinson to replace him.

At the time, signing Hodkinson appeared a wise strategic move. But less than halfway into his three-season deal, the club captain is facing an uncertain future after being dumped to reserve grade by coach Nathan Brown.

Rewind two years and the Knights could surely never have imagined such a scenario unfolding.

Hodkinson was considered the best halfback in the state and a player capable of alleviating the pressure building onKnights coach Rick Stone.

Stone’s halves that season were to be Roberts and Jarrod Mullen, but the latter broke a bone in his foot in round 10 and did not play again that season.

In his absence, Roberts struggled with the responsibility of taking over as primary playmaker. As the losses mounted, Newcastle reached the conclusion that they needed a more consistent andreliable No.7.

The two on the market were James Maloney and Hodkinson. Maloney eventually switched from the Roosters to Cronulla, helping them win a premiership in his first season.

Hodkinson joined the Knights, collecting a wooden spoon straight up.

The planthat he would form a complementary partnership with Mullen remains sadly unfulfilled.

In theory theyappeared ideally matched.

Hodkinson is a right-foot kicker, Mullen left-footed. Hodkinson is an organiser, Mullen’s strength was his running game.

The Knights were happy to invest more than $3 million in the pair over three years, believing they would provide the stability and organisation around which they could build a successful team.

If only.

As it panned out, Hodkinson and Mullenplayed only 14 games together, for one win.

Stone did not even get to coach his star recruit. He was sacked before Hodkinson hadarrived.

After an injury-plagued 2016, Mullen tested positive to a banned steroid and is now awaiting a suspension that is expected to end his career.

And whether Hodkinson appears again in Newcastle’s top team is a matter of conjecture.

The master plan Newcastle officials hatched two years ago has unravalled spectacularly. Yet to suggest that they should have shown more foresight seems, to me, a tad harsh.

On reflection, it always seemed strange that Canterbury –a club famed for its solidarity –had not foughtharder to retain their NSW Origin halfback.

Yet the notion that he arrived in Newcastle with a bung knee, which has since worsened, is not evidenced by his career record.

In the three seasons before he joined the Knights, Hodkinson played in 20, 25 and 19 games for the Bulldogs –the latter cut short by a dislocated wrist –and six Origins.

Before he was dropped last week, he had played in 30 of a possible 31 games for Newcastle –more than any of his teammates.

That does not suggest a player who is a lame duck.

Moreover, if his on-field performances have come under scrutiny, perhaps it could be noted that in the six seasons before he joined Newcastle, only once did Hodkinson’s teams not make the finals.

It’s a far tougher proposition playing for –statistically at least –the worst team ofthe NRL era.

All of which must remind Roberts that being off-loaded by Newcastle was the luckiest break of his career.

He hasplayed in 29 of the Titans’33games since the start of last season, including the qualifying-final loss to Brisbane.

This season he’s shown his versatility by playing in the halves, off the bench, hooker and fullback.

The 25-year-old is heading into the best years of his career, and the Titans are reportedly keen to re-sign him.

If he had his time over, I doubt he would change a thing. Somehow it’s hard to imagine the Knights expressing similar sentiments.

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