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Entering the Mullen years

For as long as rugby league is played there will only be one Newcastle halfback, and his name is Andrew Johns.
Entering the Mullen years
by NRL

For as long as rugby league is played there will only be one Newcastle halfback, and his name is Andrew Johns. But nobody can play forever, and the succession plan for the king of the Hunter entrusted one of the most difficult tasks in sports history to a skinny kid from Singleton named Jarrod Mulen. A cunning halfback in junior footy, Mullen would learn at the feet of Johns, before ascending to his role once Joey hung uo the boots. Glimpses of brilliance in the injury riddled 2005 season only whetted the appetite of Knights fans, as the then schoolboy showed touches of class that belied his age. But if any incident indicated that the Mullen dynasty was about to begin, it was the qualifying final of 2006. In and out of first grade all season, Mullen was coming off the bench against Manly, in front of a capacity crowd at EnergyAustralia stadium. The old rivals from the ARL days, Manly, led by former Knight Ben Kennedy, came to town for a pulsating battle between two tough, gritty football teams.

The match is approaching fulltime. Knights in great position, the crowd roaring for Joey to do it again, to pull Newcastle out of the fire and send the Silvertails back to the beaches whence they came. Buderus fires it back, but not to all time legend Andrew Johns. It's Mullen, barely 19 years of age, coolly slotting the one pointer. Knights in the lead. Two minutes to go. Manly penalty, Orford has a shot to win the game. He strikes it, he likes it ... but it falls away. Mullen catches it on his own line. He beats the first, then the second. Then a third as he streaks away down the touchline, all of Newcastle cheering him down the straight. A metre out he is dragged down, but Newcastle score anyway, and wins. What a game, the punters cry, what a player this Mullen kid is going to be!

Three games into 2007, disaster strikes. Johns gets a bump on the neck, and rides off into the sunset. Hang on to your ass Jarrod; this is your team now. A handy enough start led to an Origin berth, and despite the loss Mullen acquitted himself well against a Queensland team gearing up for its record-breaking run. Injury resulted in losing half the season, but surely 2008 was Mullen's time to step up.

2008 was good without being great. 2009 was eerily similar. 2010 and 2011 were solid years certainly, but it wasn't the kind of season a superstar would have. They weren't the kind of seasons the Johns boys produced. Newcastle bleeds blue and red, but when will the patience with Mullen end? It is not as if he doesn't possess the talent, anyone with the vaguest notion of rugby league can see his skills, and marvel at his array of cut out passes, banana kicks and incisive running. Granted, he is only 24 years of age, but his time must come soon.

Nearly seven seasons of first grade is more than enough for a half to begin feeling as if he is the captain of the ship, the chief organiser of his band of players. Plenty of time has been given for Mullen to feel his way into the role, and a number of challengers have been cast by the wayside, indicating the confidence management has in Mullen's ability.

The arrival of Wayne Bennet to Newcastle would make one think that Mullen will soon be having drinks in the last chance saloon. In 3 seasons under Bennet, Jamie Soward went from a fringe first grader to an Origin star. With arguably a better starting point, the question remains what can Bennet do with Mullen? If he can't do the job, if he can't be the onfield general for the Knights then he will go. Ryan Stig and Tyrone Roberts are nipping at his heels, just as he nipped at Johns', and this year is crunch time for Mullen. Can he become one of the elite halves in the competition, or will he join the Tim Smiths, the Joe Williams', the Josh Lewis' of the world, players who flattered to deceive time and time again, until finally fading into the rugby league wilderness.

There idea of a payer being on his "last chance" is loaded phrase in rugby league. If a player is good enough, he will get as many chances as he wants. But Bennet does not suffer fools, and if a player is not up to job he will find himself out the door so fast his head will spin. I have a lot of time for Mullen as a player, and just as in seasons past he has started solidly enough in 2012. But the time for solid seasons, of gaining experience and of being the junior partner in the halves is over. It is time for Mullen to take the jump to superstar, to finally begin to fill the huge boots left behind by Johns, to fulfil the potential he has allowed us to glimpse throughout his career.

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