True champions come along infrequently in sport and life, and outgoing Newcastle coach Rick Stone believes the Knights have one on their roster now... and remarkably are happy to see him leave at the end of the year.

This week Stone, warming the coach’s chair for Wayne Bennett’s arrival in 2012, gave Cronulla-bound hooker Isaac De Gois arguably the biggest compliment an athlete can receive. Stone wrote De Gois’ performance against the Warriors last weekend “displayed the work rate, desperation and competitiveness of the true champion he is”.

But De Gois, 26, isn’t completely sure what all the fuss is about.

“I don’t know why [Stone thinks so highly of me] – you’d have to ask him,” De Gois tells NRL.com. “Every training session I just try to learn, and every match I prepare to go out onto the field and do everything to the best of my ability. I just do my best and try to keep everyone motivated.”

Motivation shouldn’t be too hard to find in the Knights’ camp at present – they currently sit in eighth position with the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs just two points behind. This week’s clash with Brisbane, on Monday night at Ausgrid Stadium in Newcastle, is a big test for the Novocastrians, as are the following fortnight’s clashes against South Sydney and Canterbury-Bankstown.

“It’s always good in this back half of the season to be in contention for finals,” De Gois, who has battled a broken thumb and partially torn bicep this season but is now “all good”, says.

“It’s a massive match for us and Brisbane as well – they’ve been in great form all year, their forwards are going great, and Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace are just playing off the back of that. Every game we play [from here on in] is going to be tough and the Broncos are real contenders.”

So far this season the Knights have won just two matches against teams currently in the top eight – a 34-22 win over the Cowboys in Round 2 and a 14-10 victory against an Origin-weakened Dragons in Round 17 – but the Knights’ fiery hooker is not worried.

“I haven’t really heard that – I’m not really a stats man,” De Gois admits. “But those stats won’t bother us. For us it’s just another game of footy – we need to be ‘on’ to get the two points.”

De Gois, currently in his third year at the Knights, knows those two points are crucial to his side’s finals aspirations – and his desire to leave Newcastle on a high. The crafty, competitive No.9 was earlier this year asked to look elsewhere just weeks after agreeing to a new three-year deal tying him to the Knights until the end of the 2014 season. He says he was “devastated” by the news he was unwanted at the club and being forced to look elsewhere. Eventually he agreed to a three-year contract to return to Cronulla, where he established himself as a first-grader in 2007 and 2008.

“Yeah, absolutely I was [devastated],” De Gois says. “I think everyone now knows I agreed to sign on for another three years (with Newcastle) earlier in the season before the takeover (by Nathan Tinkler, with the appointment of Bennett as coach for 2012) was sorted... then my manager was told I wasn’t wanted and that I should find another club. It was devastating because I committed to stay here – it was pretty hard to take. In saying that I’m just fortunate that Cronulla picked me up and that’s where everything started for me. I’m looking forward to going back.

“My manager told me what was going on, then ‘Stoney’ spoke to me and told me the same during the week... Absolutely [Stone wanted me to stay] and I wanted to stay, too. But that’s what happens in football... all you can do is keep going and move on with things.”

It looms as a potentially unceremonious exit from Newcastle for the man labelled by many as the long-term replacement for legendary Knights hooker Danny Buderus. De Gois wanted to stay at the Knights – he had created a base in Newcastle, contributed significantly on the field and developed relationships in the area. However, he will leave with some great memories – and friends for life.

“Right from when I moved up here I have really enjoyed myself,” De Gois says. “When I came up here a few people said I was Danny Buderus’ replacement but [former coach Brian Smith] told me I wasn’t – he wanted me to play my own game. Buderus is irreplaceable – he’s an Australian and New South Wales captain – and I just came up here to play my own game and bring to the team what I bring to the team and I’d like to think I’ve done that for the past three years.

“The coaching staff, fans and players have been great... everyone has been, right through to my neighbours! It’s a very welcoming place, and it was nice to make the semis that first year I was here (in 2009). Obviously every club has its off-field issues from time to time – whether coaches or players – and it’s something that’s usually out of our control. We’ve just always had to get out there and put it behind us and play good footy... and that’s always what we’ve tried to do at this club.

“The friendships you make up here in a small town are pretty special. I’ll keep in touch with a lot of people.”

Thankfully for De Gois, the cliché rings true this time – every cloud has a silver lining. His upcoming return to Sydney means more family time for him and his partner, Renee.

“I’m still looking for somewhere to live [when I return to Sydney]. At this point I’m looking for something to buy if I can – I’ll rent if I have to, though – and something around Engadine way would be nice. It’s a bit further out (from Cronulla) but those properties around the Shire are a bit out of my price range! I’m looking for a house as I have a dog, a nine-month-old border collie, Tilly, so it’s a bit unfair to put her in a little apartment.”

But, for the next month at least, the nuggety No.9 is focusing on just one goal, despite his recent dramas.

“I can only look forward and try to finish this year on a high and worry about the years to come when they happen,” he says. “I have good memories of my first year up here, when we made the semis and gave it a bit of a shake... and hopefully we can do the same this year and take a few steps further.

“Rick’s been a great coach for a few years now – [making the finals] would be a great way to send him off, as well as the host of players who are leaving at the end of the season... and as soon as you make the semis, it’s a whole new ball game.”

Late NRL news:

•    St George Illawarra centre Mark Gasnier has been ruled out of tonight’s clash with Melbourne due to a hip injury. Dragons’ winger Brett Morris could also miss the match – his partner is due to give birth.

•    The Rabbitohs are expected to be as per program against the Cowboys at ANZ Stadium tonight. Greg Inglis will be one of the Cowboys’ major worries – he is unbeaten in his past eight appearances against North Queensland, stretching back to 2006. The big centre has grabbed nine line-breaks for as many tries along with 49 tackle-breaks and an average of 163 metres gained per match along the way.

•    Roosters’ centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall is in doubt for his side’s clash with the Sharks at the SFS tomorrow night, as are Sam Perrett and BJ Leilua. All three have leg injuries. If ‘SKD’ does play, he could very well join an elite band of Roosters try-scoring legends. Kenny-Dowall (nine tries) is poised to become only the fifth player in club history to score 10 or more tries in four consecutive seasons.

•    Newcastle centre Junior Sa’u is still battling a hamstring problem in the lead-up to Monday night’s crucial clash with Brisbane.