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They may be missing inspirational skipper Kurt Gidley this week but Newcastle coach Brian Smith has pointed to halfback Jarrod Mullen as the man to fill the void against Canberra tomorrow night.<br><br>Mullen – unlucky to miss State of Origin selection himself – has been in scintillating form this season with the Knights on course for a first finals appearance since 2006.<br><br>And Smith said his side’s rapid improvement in 2009 was in no small part due to the efforts of his classy no.7, who looked overawed when he made his Origin debut in 2007 but has since developed into one of the NRL’s most astute playmakers.<br><br>“I really think he has come a long way this season,” Smith told NRL.com today. <br><br>“The thing for Jarrod is that he is finding new ways to challenge himself about the areas of the game only experience can bring – how to run a team and how to promote quality play out of your team’s attack when you’re under pressure.<br><br>“At various times, with all of the things a footy game can throw up, I reckon he has really developed in his ability to stay composed in that area.<br><br>“As a halfback or five-eighth, that’s a huge part of your job.<br><br>“As the focal point of your team it is your job to coordinate the thinking patterns of the team and make sure the communication levels of the team are all there under pressure.”<br><br>Although his attack has been scintillating at times, Smith pointed to Mullen’s defence as a key component in his game this season.<br><br>“His defence is the first thing that has improved,” he said. <br><br>“He has always been able to tackle but he was probably a bit inconsistent in his earlier times in first grade. <br><br>“He has really applied himself this year – he and Ben Rogers have been great for us in defence the past few weeks.”<br><br>It has been an eventful week for the Knights, with news that back-rower Cameron Ciraldo is likely to complete a remarkable recovery from the ugly ankle injury that saw him stretchered from the field against Cronulla in Round 2.<br><br>Smith said Newcastle was currently in discussions on a new deal with Ciraldo, who remains one of only a handful of players yet to be re-signed for 2010.<br><br>The Knights are keen to retain the majority of their squad next year following an impressive campaign so far this season that has them poised to reach the finals for the first time since 2006.<br><br>Despite suffering an agonising loss to Melbourne in the dying minutes last Saturday, they could even push for a surprise top-four finish with a win over Canberra at EnergyAustralia tomorrow night.<br><br>“The challenge for us is to repeat some of the really good form we’ve produced this year,” Smith said.<br><br>“We’ve beaten three of the top four teams and came within a whisker of beating the fourth on their home ground last weekend.<br><br>“They’re pretty good credentials – we’ve got a formula that’s pretty good.<br><br>“But we’ve still got to win enough games to reach the finals and then lift again from there.<br><br>“We’re still looking for a general improvement and consistency in all areas.”<br><br>Although this young Newcastle squad’s best years are no doubt ahead of them, Smith said the Knights had every intention of shaking up the finals in 2009.<br><br>“We’re still the most inexperienced team in the NRL and it may be true that our best is yet to come, but we’ll worry about 2010 when we get there,” he said.<br><br>“It’s getting the best out of 2009 that is our challenge right now.”<br><br><b>Late news:</b><br><br>• Jamie Lyon has ruled out any chance of a surprise return for Manly this weekend after being ruled out of the third State of Origin game with injury;<br>• Nathan Fien will have to wait until tomorrow to find out of he will make his St George Illawarra debut after being named on a five-man bench;<br>• Bulldogs coach Kevin Moore is also yet to finalise his squad for Sunday’s clash with the Warriors amid a host of injury and suspension worries. They are also missing Brett Kimmorley and Michael Ennis on Origin duty.