"The Roosters are all good guys, so it's nothing against Brian Smith - nothing like that - it's just another game for me" ... former Rooster Willie Mason. Photo: Getty Images
''OH, MY old mate Smithy,'' Willie Mason said with a laugh. ''It'll be good.'' If the headline magnet hoped to keep a low profile in the formative stages of his return to the competition, the schedule has done him no favours.
On Sunday, his Newcastle Knights are away to the Sydney Roosters, the club where he spent two years before he was deemed surplus to requirements for 2010, the final year of his contract and the season Brian Smith took over as head coach.
Mason went on to controversially label the Roosters directors, who cut him (the decision was made before Smith joined from Newcastle), as ''fat businessman'' and ended up at the North Queensland Cowboys. Now, via blink-and-you'll-miss-it stints with Hull Kingston Rovers and French rugby big spenders Toulon he turns up back at his old stomping ground, the Allianz Stadium, but says he has no point to prove.
"The Roosters played some really good football last Wednesday. I think they played their best game but still got beat, so we?ve obviously got some work to do this week" ... Willie Mason. Photo: Getty Images
''The Roosters are all good guys, so it's nothing against Brian Smith - nothing like that - it's just another game for me,'' Mason said after his first NRL game for the Knights, a 34-14 win over Penrith at Hunter Stadium on Monday night.
''The Roosters played some really good football last Wednesday. I think they played their best game but still got beat, so we've obviously got some work to do this week.''
The Roosters, beaten at the post by St George Illawarra on Anzac Day, will have little room for sentiment either, despite several of them retaining strong friendships with Mason.
The 32-year-old arrived at the Roosters for the 2008 season as a decorated NSW and Australian representative, and as their highest-paid player. Things never really went to plan, however, despite the Roosters charging to fourth by that September.
A serious knee injury that kept Mason out of the semi-finals that year also held him back the following season, a woeful campaign in which the Roosters finished last and had to contend with a series of ugly off-field incidents.
There was a widely held view that the Roosters of 2009 had a culture tainted by alcohol. There was a related line of thinking that Mason, the loudest voice among the players, was a bad egg and a poor influence for young teammates such as Mitchell Pearce, Nate Myles and Jake Friend. He was painted as a divisive figure, and got on increasingly poorly with then coach Brad Fittler.
However, his former Roosters teammates maintain it was not that simple. Braith Anasta pleaded for the club to keep Mason, saying he had the respect of all players and was integral to the team.
Another senior player, Anthony Minichiello, told the Herald yesterday that Mason did not deserve the troublemaker tag he acquired at the Roosters when they were at their lowest ebb.
''Everyone knows he likes a night out and all that sort of stuff, but he doesn't drag young blokes out at all,'' Minichiello said. ''At the time, I think everyone in that club wasn't playing well. It was a bad year for us. When Willie has got his head on, he can be a great influence to any player.''
A long-time friend of Mason's, the 31-year-old fullback believes the former international forward can be a great asset for Wayne Bennett at Newcastle and superb value for money given he has joined for only $40,000 plus match payments.
''He's at a great club and a has a good coach behind him … he'll do well,'' Minichiello said. ''I'm good mates with him and happy to see him back in the NRL. I'm looking forward to this weekend.
''Whenever you play against your old club you want to perform well and, with that run under his belt last week, he'll be much better for it.''
Even in the twilight of his career, with his playing minutes restricted from the bench, there is an aura about Mason that makes him a leading attraction on Sunday. ''Everything he does,'' Minichiello said. ''He does it in style.''