In the latest of a series on the breakout stars of the NRL leading into the finals, Brad Walter traces the unique career path of Bunnies big man Liam Knight.
Liam Knight used to make up excuses to avoid going to league training so he could play tennis and he almost rejected an approach from Manly to pursue a college scholarship in the United States.
The South Sydney prop is finally fulfilling the potential that premiership-winning coaches Des Hasler, Trent Robinson, Ricky Stuart and Wayne Bennett had all seen him but Knight admitted he had struggled to choose between the NRL or tennis.
A teenage tennis prodigy, he won a tournament in Alice Springs at 15-years-of-age in 2010 before joining the Sea Eagles a year later as a powerful centre.
Knight even played alongside Nick Kyrgios at a tournament in Bathurst, but wants it known that he was never in the same league as the Australian superstar.
“There was one stage when I was considering tennis over football and, talking to my tennis coach, there was a path to go to college in America and play tennis,” Knight said.
“That was a stepping stone for some people and it was obviously pretty appealing to live in another country and go to college for tennis. That was something that got tossed up at one stage but then footy took over.”
Until Manly offered him a three-year deal after recruitment manager Dave Warwick spotted him playing for The Entrance Tigers, Knight had been equally passionate about league and tennis.
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After losing his mother to cancer when he was five, Knight moved around the country with his father – an advertising location manager - but chose to stay put on the Central Coast when work took his dad to Western Australia.
“I had the choice not to go there because there was no football in Western Australia, so I moved in with my tennis coach,” he said. “I was 13 and I was living with my tennis coach and two other guys who were aspiring tennis players.
“I played more tennis than footy to be honest. I only had footy training twice a week but I’d be playing tennis every day for hours. I loved it. I just played for a bit of fun and then I started to get alright.
“I did win a tournament and I had some good results when I was 14 or 15. I was a big server and just tried to stay on forehand because I didn’t have much of a backhand.
"I actually did play in an under 16s tournament that Nick Kyrgios was at in Bathurst, but that is pretty much my claim to fame.”
Matt Roberts, who raised Knight during his teenage years and doubled as his tennis coach, said he was equally as good at both sports and a college scholarship in the United States was “absolutely achievable”.
I only had footy training twice a week but I’d be playing tennis every day for hours. I loved it.Liam Knight
“He would have done that for sure. There is not even a question of doubt,” Roberts said.
“If you were to ask whether he could have been a world ranked tennis player, I’d lean towards no. But getting a scholarship with an American college, he would have achieved that for sure.
“He loved it too. Sometimes he would make up a little lie to miss rugby league training so he could stay with me and play tennis.
“Then Manly came in, and there was Newcastle and Parramatta too, so it went from there.”
With the Sea Eagles initially offering him a one-year deal, Knight admitted he found it difficult to choose between the two sports as he would have had to travel from the Central Coast to train and play four-to-five days per week.
“It was probably a bigger decision than I cared to admit at the time,” he said.
However, the offer was increased to three years after he starred for The Entrance in the Central Coast grand final and Knight chose the security of a contract with Manly.
“I had played a lot more tennis than football so it was hard to make up my mind at the time but when I got offered that deal I thought that was real, and that was what I wanted to do, so that pretty much made up my mind,” Knight said.
Despite his involvement with tennis, Roberts was supportive.
“He is not just a tennis coach, he helped me when I was younger and looked after me,” Knight said.
“He just said you have got to make a decision and be happy with it. He is a big footy fan too. He is a mad Sharks supporter.”
While one is largely an individual sport and the other relies heavily on a team ethos, Knight believes his development as a tennis player has benefitted him in the NRL.
“I just think it helped me movement wise, laterally and with agility. I was a bit bigger for my age and moved pretty well I thought,” he said.
“It taught me how to train and stay focused by myself. I would much prefer to be in a team sport but having said that you have got to be the best version of yourself behind closed doors before you can be in a good team.”
In tennis, there is no one else to look to or rely on in the clutch moments and mental toughness is a crucial part of the game that the best players all possess.
“That is the hardest thing in tennis. You can be talented but the pressure moments are what obviously separates the top dogs from the rest on the court,” Knight said.
“It’s all on you and there is nowhere to hide.”
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A nine-month lay-off with a lisfranc fracture in his left foot was the first setback in Knight’s career and when he returned in SG Ball for the Sea Eagles, the coaches decided to move him from the centres to second row.
“I lost whatever pace I had and started moving slowly year by year towards the middle of the field,” he said.
Knight packed down in the front row for the first time in the Under 20s and he has never played any other position since.
It was a turning point in his career but one Knight admits he strongly resisted at the time.
“I played in the second row for a couple of years and then when I was 19 we had three or four injuries in the front-row so the coach came to me and said, ‘we want you to play front row. We’ve run out of front-rowers and you’re the next up'.
“I was filthy. I said, 'no, I don’t want to play front row’, but I didn’t really have a choice so I played one game and I loved it. I have never played another game out of the front row since.
“I did love playing in the centres. I was a bit lighter and I felt like I had a bit of toe about me but I couldn’t imagine not being in the middle now.”
In 2015, Knight played for NSW Under 20s and helped lead a Manly team which included Tom Trbojevic, Jesse Ramien, Luke Garner and Nicho Hynes to the NYC grand final against Penrith before making his NRL debut the following season.
Yet he had made just 10 NRL appearances with three different clubs – Manly, Sydney Roosters and Canberra – before joining the Rabbitohs last season under Bennett.
At the time he was as well known for spraying Aeroguard in his mouth when stopped for a breath test as his playing talents but Bennett recognised his potential and Knight is now a key member of the Souths forward pack.
Barring injury or suspension, Knight is due to make his 50th NRL appearance in next week’s opening finals match.
“I probably couldn’t have imagined I would be where I am right now three years ago or even two years ago,” Knight said.
“After a couple of years of just moving from club to club trying to find my feet I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I love the club I am now at and everyone involved, from the players, the staff and coaches.
“I haven’t had the best year or the year I had intended for myself form wise due to whatever reason after having a lot of fun last year and a bit of success. Obviously I owe Wayne a bit for his faith so I need to pull my finger out.”
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Bennett is renowned for being able to spot a diamond in the rough and Knight said he was a “calming influence” on all the Souths players.
“He just knows what to say and when to say it. He just hits the mark exactly where it needs to and so consistently,” Knights said. “He has been around the game for 40 years for a reason and all the boys love having him on board.”
Roberts said he was proud of what Knight had achieved and attributed much of that to Bennett.
“Wayne has been great and he has definitely had an influence on him,” Roberts said. “Liam looks up to him and he thinks the world of Wayne.
"I am grateful to all of his coaches, even Robbo at Easts, who kicked him out. I thank him for what he tried to do for Liam as well.
“It’s been such a journey. There were times when Liam was really questioning himself about whether he should be doing it anymore because he spent such a long apprenticeship.
“I am so proud, not just for what he has achieved on the field. He comes back to visit and he is such a great role model for the kids here [in Alice Springs].”
Bennett also praised the way Knight has developed since joining the Rabbitohs last season and believes his best is still ahead of him.
“I’ve got a lot of time for Liam and a lot of respect for Liam,” Bennett said. “I think he has just matured and just gets better with age.
“I think he is at the point in his life now where he is in a pretty good place and he is able to produce pretty good football for us."