Joel Edwards

In the firing line ... Joel Edwards, left, has been dropped from the Newcastle team to take on Cronulla at Hunter Stadum on Monday night. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

KNIGHTS coach Wayne Bennett has defended his decision to drop Joel Edwards, saying it had nothing to do with Edwards's defection to the Canberra Raiders.

Confirming a report in the Newcastle Herald yesterday, Bennett said Edwards has been omitted from the Knights team to play Cronulla at Hunter Stadium on Monday and will instead play for Newcastle against Mounties in a NSW Cup game at Mount Pritchard today.

The 24-year-old Cessnock Goannas junior agreed to terms last week on a three-year deal with the Raiders reportedly worth about $600,000 for the term of the contract.

That decision came two days after Edwards knocked back a two-year extension with the Knights, believed to be worth more than $300,000.

Bennett said Edwards was one of three players in the firing line and, though the coach did not reveal the identity of the other two, he retained them as a show of faith and said Edwards had been given enough chances to prove himself.

''That's what you get picked here on,'' Bennett said, when asked if his decision to drop Edwards was solely related to form.

Bennett would not be concerned if anyone suggested Edwards was only left out of the team because he was leaving the Knights at the end of the season.

''Well, that's a possibility but as I said, if you worry about your critics, then you can't do what I do, so I'm not worried about what someone else's opinion is,'' he said.

''He's in a category of guys where you could pick two or three probably, to go back, but he's had the benefit of doubt all year and I'm trying to help one or two others get a bit of confidence about themselves.

''There's nothing between about three of them, so I made the decision … He started the season not great, Eddie, and he's had some good patches and some ordinary patches, like a lot of them have, so it could have been between him and two other blokes.

''But at the moment I've gone with the other two and tried to give them a bit of confidence and a bit of belief, and see what they can bring.

''I've certainly given him [Edwards] that all season - I've given him the benefit of the doubt.''

Bennett said he could have adapted a different selection policy if the Knights were out of the finals race, but the regular selection of Catalans-bound back-rower Zeb Taia was proof that he would not drop a player primarily as a punitive response to them leaving the club.

''Look, there's a lot of variables there. It depends where you're travelling in the comp - there's a whole lot of issues - and right now we've got to get our best team on the field every week, and that's our priority,'' he said.

''Zeb's going, other guys are leaving, so none of that's happened here, and it's not going to happen now.

''If we were down the bottom of the comp and we were preparing for next year and thinking more about next year, you make other decisions.

''But right now we want the best team out there because these guys still have confidence in themselves and hope that they can make the play-offs, and that's what we're aiming for.''

Alex McKinnon missed training yesterday due to a virus but is expected to train tomorrow and take his place in the run-on side against the Sharks on Monday night.

McKinnon is likely to move to the second row to replace Edwards, allowing Neville Costigan to retain his place at the back of the scrum.