Bennett's belief is Mason's medicine
Renaissance man ... Willie Mason hits the pool during a recovery session with the Knights. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
ASK Willie Mason to explain his brilliant rise from the smouldering ashes of a once-bright NRL career and it quickly becomes apparent the former international is a changed man.
Not in the sense that he's found God and sworn off the drink, but that he has grown older, wiser and is happier.
''[Newcastle coach] Wayne [Bennett] is a big part of that,'' Mason told the Herald yesterday. ''Wayne has a lot of faith in me. He's given me a leadership role and I'm thriving with it. He's got all the confidence in the world in me and it's given me my confidence back. I feel like I'm 25 again.''
In a stale media environment where true characters are harder to come by than Olympic gold medals, Mason's forthright comments are refreshing. ''To be honest, Wayne has just given me a very simple game plan,'' he said.
''He wants me to lead the forwards and play 40 minutes of football as hard as I possibly can. And that's made my job a lot easier. That leadership challenge and that faith has made so much of a difference. And as a result, I'm just excited and really enjoying my football.''
Having spent a season in France playing rugby for Toulon after a deal at Hull KR fell through due to passport issues, signing the former North Queensland forward was considered a gamble by most NRL clubs. Seeing his potential, the Wests Tigers made a play for him but pulled out.
And while the Knights might be laughing given the 32-year-old helped bring their season back to life, a humble Mason certainly is not. He knew it would be a tough road back. And he put in the hard work to make it happen.
''Without Trent Langlands [personal trainer] and Roger Fabri [running coach], I'd never even have been close to the shape I needed to be in to play NRL this year,'' Mason said.
''I can't stress enough how big a part they played in getting me to where I am. I worked my arse off under them and it's as close as you can get to a pre-season. I still think I have improvement in me and I'm really looking forward to a full pre-season to be my best.''
''Getting away to France, well, I'm not trying to be cheeky but I think if every player in that stage of their career had an opportunity to sit on the French Riviera for a year and play a game that isn't really that physical compared to NRL, they'd come back a better player.
''Physically, it allowed my body to heal and mentally, it worked wonders. It relit the fire inside of me and made me want to come back to the NRL and finish on my terms.
''That's why I've stayed out of the media. I want people to start seeing me as a footballer and not just someone they think doesn't respect the game or fools around. Hopefully once the new deal is finalised I can buy a house up here and my fiancee and I can make a home up here.''
The Knights are expected to confirm a new two-year deal with Mason in coming weeks.