MVPs for 2014: Jarrod Mullen
Like the Knights in general, Jarrod Mullen spent much of 2013 under the radar before finishing with a bang.
At one stage mid-season Wayne Bennett's boys won just once in seven starts to be well outside the top eight after 14 rounds, but their last 10 matches yielded six wins and a draw as they scraped into seventh spot, then earned a place in the final four with a strong win over the Storm in Melbourne in the second week of the finals.
Mullen was a key man throughout that period, finishing the season fourth on the NRL's try assist tally with 24 from 26 games, which included four assists in the Knights' three finals games. In fact even in their disappointing 40-14 loss to the Roosters in the grand final qualifier, Mullen still showed what he can bring to the table, especially with the boot: he had the ball on a string late in the piece with two try assists from kicks, and also recorded a 40/20 in that game (one of his season-high four such kicks).
It was too little too late in that instance for the Knights but it did show that when Mullen puts it together he's good enough to shred even the Roosters' watertight defence.
It's not just his attacking kicks that were a feature of 2013 for Newcastle: Mullen was by far and away the season's top metre getter with the boot, kicking 423 times in total for 13,109 metres in his 26 games – miles clear of Panther Luke Walsh (9,280 in 23 games) and the Storm's Cooper Cronk (8,983 in 23 games).
This is both a strength and a weakness for Newcastle as it highlights their overreliance on one kicker – halfback Tyrone Roberts cleared just 2,137 metres in 27 games – but it does crystallise just how important Mullen's long boot is to Newcastle's structure and attack. He has, over the past few seasons, been one of the very best in terms of finding space with his kicks, hitting the turf with around two thirds of kicks (while many good halves operate at closer to 50 per cent when it comes to finding space with kicks).
His running game has dropped off slightly of late – 2013 saw him cross for two tries, with four line breaks and six offloads. He ran just over four times per game at around 42 metres per match.
Clearly the bread and butter of a playmaker is the creative and organisational play but outside of his kicks, the rest of his stats fell short of what the top five-eighths like Johnathan Thurston and James Maloney achieved in 2013.
With Roberts finding his feet as an NRL halfback and Kurt Gidley hopefully back on deck at hooker, with Test winger Darius Boyd again at fullback, all the ingredients are there for a powerful spine for Newcastle in 2014.
It's time for Mullen to prove he is the player many good judges have long tipped him to be – if his running and passing game lifts to match his kicking game he could be the player Newcastle build a successful 2014 campaign around.