KNIGHTS coach Wayne Bennett says controversial former Test forward Willie Mason has joined the club with a ''clean slate''.
Bennett told the Herald that Mason's past misdemeanours were of no concern, and he was sure the former Bulldogs, Roosters and Cowboys enforcer would contribute strongly on and off the field.
''You know, Willie's a headline,'' Bennett said. ''That's just the way it's been, but if you know Willie Mason, there's an extremely good bloke there. Like all of us, he has his imperfections, so he's no exception to the rule. But his past to me is the past. He comes to me with a clean slate, as far as I'm concerned - and the Knights - and that's what we'll judge him on.''
The Knights said yesterday that the former Macquarie Scorpions and Hunter Mariners junior had signed an incentive-based contract to play out the season with his hometown NRL club. The 2004 Clive Churchill Medallist, who turned 32 last Sunday, passed a medical examination yesterday and is expected to make his first appearance in Knights colours in their NSW Cup team against the Illawarra Cutters at Toyota Stadium on Sunday. Mason will be considered for Newcastle's next NRL game against Penrith at Hunter Stadium on April 30 but a more realistic debut would be against the Roosters at Allianz Stadium on May 6.
He was shown the door at the Roosters at the end of 2009 by incoming coach Brian Smith, who had parted company with the Knights just a few weeks earlier.
Mason said in a club media statement that he was grateful to the Knights and Bennett for having confidence in him. ''I am aware that I still have plenty of hard work ahead of me to earn a spot in the NRL team,'' Mason said. ''It is great to be home and playing in front of my family, friends and the Newcastle community. I can't wait to run out for my first game in the famous Knights colours.''
Although Mason's recent CV includes just six Super League games for Hull Kingston Rovers and 74 minutes of French rugby union with Toulon, Bennett said the 196 centimetre prop would provide the size and strength the Knights have been missing up front.
Bennett said he was convinced Mason, who won a premiership with the Bulldogs in 2004 and has played 24 Tests for Australia and 13 Origin games for NSW, was still motivated to prove to himself and his critics that he could succeed in the NRL.
''He wouldn't be putting himself through all this if he didn't think he wanted to prove something amongst the game and finish his career on a note that he would be happy with himself with,'' said Bennett, who coached Mason in 10 Tests for Australia in 2004 and 2005.
Bennett said Newcastle's performances this season showed they were still ''a big man short'', and that Mason would fill that void and bring out the best in his new teammates.
Knights captain Kurt Gidley and Mason, a long-time friend, were spotted having lunch together in Newcastle yesterday, and are expected to train together today.
Mason's deal comprises a $40,000 sign-on fee and match payments, and includes performance-based bonus clauses. Knights chief executive Matt Gidley would not comment when asked if Mason's contract contained behaviour-related clauses.
During talks with Mason in early 2010, conducted three months after convicted drug dealer Danny Wicks quit the club, former Knights chief executive Steve Burraston said: ''Any contract that we draw up will have strict behavioural clauses included and we will have the availability to terminate if the need did arise.''
Mason took umbrage at that and eventually signed to play for the Cowboys that season.
Although he and some senior Knights figures were initially cautious about signing Mason, Matt Gidley said he was pleased to have another experienced, homegrown player back at the club.
''I spoke with Wayne at length about this, like we do with most players we look to sign, and we weighed up the strengths and weaknesses, and we both agreed that we're comfortable with offering Willie an opportunity with us for the remainder of this year,'' Gidley said.
Gidley discussed Mason's reputation with Bennett, owner Nathan Tinkler, major sponsors and other stakeholders, and settled on the opinion that the benefits of recruiting him outweighed any potential disadvantages.
''One of Wayne's greatest traits is his man-management skills, and I've got complete faith in his ability to get the best out of all our players, at the end of the day,'' he said. ''I hope that our members and fans support Willie. He's a local boy, he's coming home, and he brings a couple of really important traits - genuine experience and those physical traits you don't come across every day - that we're probably lacking in at the moment.''