Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
Has any player summed up the brilliance and influence of Knights coach Wayne Bennett better than Adam Cuthbertson? Three years ago the ball-playing prop or second-rower was deemed by almost all football experts as washed up – a player judged too fat, too lazy and seemingly unwelcome on most NRL rosters. That was until Cuthbertson met then-Dragons coach Bennett.
"I more or less had to reinvent myself when I moved to St George Illawarra," Cuthbertson, preparing with his Newcastle teammates to meet the Dragons on Sunday, tells NRL.com.
"I was pretty badly overweight, I had a few niggling injuries here and there that weren't helping the situation and I just went over there as a blank canvas and started from scratch really, prepared to learn from the best coach in the game. It started by losing all my weight."
In 2010, Cuthbertson's rollercoaster rugby league ride reached its lowest point. Signed by Cronulla coach Ricky Stuart on a big-money deal, the former Sea Eagle never truly found his feet in the Shire and, ultimately, was sent to play for the Como Crocodiles and later released. That fateful season had the Avalon Bulldogs junior reconsidering his career choice – and by the end of the year, after a trip to the United States, tossing up the idea of returning to play rugby union.
"I actually find it funny now," Cuthbertson says of his ill-fated one-year stint at the Sharks, which he now calls "a blessing".
"I laugh about it. I made a lot of good mates at Cronulla so in hindsight it wasn't too bad – I just had a rough year on the paddock. It wasn't looking great for me that year – I played a bit of A-grade – and I wasn't too keen on football."
A month-and-a-half break – when his NRL career was hanging by a thread – proved the catalyst for rediscovering his passion.
"I went away for quite a bit and forgot about [the dramas at Cronulla]," Cuthbertson says.
"It was good. I came back really refreshed. I went to the US, and I'm a lover of all sports, basketball and football and that. I went over there and just switched off. You don't hear anything going on in Australia. It's funny what a little break can do – it can really reignite your passion."
On Cuthbertson's return, he weighed up his limited options.
"Things definitely didn't look great," Cuthbertson admits. "There weren't really too many options on the table and I know for one thing Cronulla didn't want me. That was definitely not a choice. It was an avenue of thought that I'd go back and play rugby – I grew up playing rugby as a junior coming through… I didn't really know what I was going to do.
"It was really important when I came back to find a coach who was willing to help me and I guess I was really lucky to find Wayne... I was lucky enough to get a call [from Bennett] and he wanted to work out something with me and it definitely helped me out."
Cuthbertson and Bennett came to an agreement for the 2011 season – and it's proven a perfect partnership. Bennett's staff at the Dragons got Cuthbertson's troublesome diet under control, and the famed mentor's discipline ensured his newest recruit continued to be held accountable.
"With me it was more or less learning about foods in general," Cuthbertson, now 107 kilograms, says of controlling his weight.
"When I got over to the Dragons they had a fulltime dietician which really helped me. If I had a question or needed to know about something they were always on hand to answer it. The other big part – and at this club (Newcastle) too – everyone keeps themselves accountable for not only what they do on the field but what they do off it. If you're slipping up in certain areas, someone's going to turn around and let you know about it."
Now Cuthbertson, a 2007 grand-finalist with the Sea Eagles, is continuing to prove himself at Newcastle, following Bennett up the F3 at the end of 2011, along with Darius Boyd. It's been a long journey for the Manly-born forward, who only ever wanted to play for one club.
"The game is changing and it's becoming more of a business, and when your time's up at a club and they want to move on with something else, then you've got to do the same," he said.
"Manly were looking at retaining a few players and letting go of a few others (in 2009) and I happened to be one of them. I had to deal with what I had in front of me.
"I had an offer from St George to stay (for 2012) and a few things in England, but Wayne helped me revive my career and I just wanted to, not repay the favour, but everything was going so well I didn't want to change anything too dramatically by changing coach – I did that when I went from Manly to Cronulla – so I figured I'd stick to what I know and hung around."
Cuthbertson knows what his former teammates are capable of, and that insider info could prove crucial when the Knights meet the Dragons at Kogarah on Sunday. Despite St George Illawarra's 1-3 start to the season, the journeyman forward believes they're still a great team that is to be feared.
"They've got a good team all over the park when they put it together," Cuthbertson, who scored two tries in his side's victory against the Raiders last week, says.
"At the moment their forwards are probably playing the best football – Trent Merrin's a handful and he's playing really good football the past couple of weeks.
"They've got a great team and a good mentality and they've just got to put it together on the day like they did last week (against Cronulla). They're going to go to Kogarah with high expectations."
Cuthbertson's expectations, though, are much lower – at least personally. His team, though, can achieve anything in 2013.
"You look at us on paper and we've got a great team. It's just a matter of us turning up every week. Anything's possible from us," he admits.
"We had that one blemish against Manly but we seem to have got back on the right track."
As an individual, though, the one-time City representative has much more subdued expectations. Nonetheless, the stats show he continues to improve – back in 1999 he was flat-out making 10 runs a game and couldn't make any more impression than 80 metres a game – in 2013 he's averaging 16 runs and 134 metres. And his former prolific but wayward offloading game is now in check – he doesn't just fling the ball at the end of a run like he used to, but is more selective.
"Now I'm at the back end of my career, I want to be consistent. I'm not looking to achieve any goals or anything to glorify myself," the 28-year-old says.
"I'm just focused on each week at a time and if anything comes of it, it does. I got picked in the City-Country team the year before I played park football, and the year after park football I played City-Country.
"I've grown stronger from all that and I've learned a lot from that. Not many people get to play as much NRL as I have.
"Things don't always happen how you like them but I generally think they all happen for a reason. I think I've been blessed."