Mullen takes a punt as master class makes the difference
Game breaker … Jarrod Mullen makes a bust. Photo: Darren Pateman
AGAINST the NSW skipper and the incumbent five-eighth, Knights pivot Jarrod Mullen put on a kicking master class to lead Newcastle to victory last night.
As Todd Carney struggled to recapture the form that led Cronulla to a thumping victory against the Warriors last week, Mullen rose to the fore to produce his best game under Wayne Bennett.
''He was very good tonight, he was excellent actually,'' Bennett said. ''His running game was great. There was one occasion there when we were pinned on our 20-metre line, they put a really good set on us in D [defence] and we were really struggling to get off our line. He put a wonderful kick in that found the sideline and just broke the game and gave us some momentum back.''
Mullen scored a try and played a hand in three others as the Knights' surge to the play-offs continued to gather momentum.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen praised the Knights No.6, declaring ''the difference was Mullen's kicking game''.
''I thought he kicked really well, that was probably the difference,'' he said. ''They played a bit smarter.''
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan is adamant finals football will bring out the best in his side, but they still have to get there. For Flanagan, whose team now sits three points inside the top eight, the equation is simple.
''If we win another game we'll be in there, and if we win a couple more, we'll be near that top four,'' he said. ''I'd love a home final. We'd love to make the top four. In the end we just have to make the eight. I'm sure if we make the eight it would be a different mindset within the playing group and definitely from myself about our approach to the semi finals.
''As you know, semi-finals is a new competition and we'll give it a real good crack. But we have to concentrate on South Sydney.''
The Sharks are at home to the Rabbitohs this weekend, away to Melbourne in the penultimate round, before returning to Toyota Stadium for the final-round clash with North Queensland. They are likely to go into those games without Wade Graham, who aggravated a sternum injury last night.
Graham has been struggling with the injury for more than a month and has missed the past two games as a result. Flanagan insisted he wasn't rushed back prematurely.
''We wouldn't have played him if he was underdone, it's just one of those things, the sternum,'' he said. ''He thought he'd be right wearing the sternum guard. I was talking to Gal and he's had one similar. You get a direct hit on it, there's not much a sternum guard or anything is going to do. It's unfortunate for Wade but I'm sure he'll be back before the end of the season.''
Bennett knows his side has a tough assignment to sneak into the play-offs, but recognises the importance of hitting your straps at this time of year.
''You just want to be playing well at this end of the season and we're doing that, the rest of it gives us the best chance we've got,'' Bennett said. ''I've been in that many situations at this time of year, I can tell you about every experience. But the experience I enjoy most is your teams playing well at the right end of the season.
''You sleep better, everyone can see the end of the season. And right now we're playing good football. Now whether it's good enough to get us there, I'm not sure. But I'm pleased to be in the position we're in. You could be on 26 or 28 points and playing rubbish and knowing that your season is gone anyway. But while they keep playing like they're playing, they're giving themselves the best chance.''