Willie Mason celebrates with fans after the Knights defeated the Storm in the second semi-final on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
While Wayne Bennett has been credited for reviving Willie Mason's career, Newcastle insiders have revealed the veteran forward's role in turning around the Knights' fortunes when they were struggling under their new coach.
Bennett may have been hailed as a saviour after joining Newcastle last season with seven premierships to his name, but some players felt intimidated by the reputation of the 63-year-old super coach.
Not so Mason, who had been a member of the 2004 and 2005 Australian squads that played Tri-Nations tournaments in Britain under Bennett.
With the Knights having won just three of their first seven matches last season, Bennett decided to give Mason a chance and he signed the 33-year-old on an incentive-based contract.
After a 34-14 win in Mason's first match, Newcastle lost its next five matches and observers believe many Knights players were unsure how to act around Bennett after two seasons under Rick Stone, who is considered a players' coach.
Mason alerted the former Broncos and Dragons mentor to the fact that some players were intimidated by him.
''Willie built a bridge between the players and Wayne last year when some of the players were a bit nervous around him,'' Newcastle recruitment manager Peter Mulholland said.
''When things were going bad we needed a joker in there, we needed that light-hearted guy who was still professional enough to know that when he walked over that line on to the field to train, that was what it was about - and Willie fits that description to a tee.''
Mason's role at the Knights is similar to that of Wendell Sailor at the Dragons: a player near the end of his career who has had a long association with Bennett and can act as an intermediary between the coach and his new charges.
Bennett said in an interview with the Newcastle Herald early this year that he had expected the Knights to make the finals last year but after their mid-season slump he realised something was wrong.
''I made some changes to myself, the way I was coaching … I had to accept the reality of the situation,'' he said.
''We cleaned up our act and we started looking like a footy team who could beat somebody. But I had to adapt to the situation.''
As for Mason, he had to prove himself after being forced out of Sydney Roosters at the end of the 2009 season while still under contract, lasting just one year at North Queensland and then having abortive stints in Super League and French rugby union.
Besides Bennett and then Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens, whose bid to sign Mason was over-ruled by his board, the former Kangaroos forward had few supporters in the NRL.
But after winning the Knights' coach's award last year and being chosen by Bennett to play for his NRL All-Stars team at the start of the season, Mason has proved the doubters wrong.
He is a key player in Newcastle's charge towards a grand final appearance if it can overcome the Roosters at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.