Knights utility Connor Watson surprised team-mates when he called them together on Tuesday to break the news that he was leaving Newcastle at the end of the season to return to the Sydney Roosters.
Watson, who will play lock in Saturday’s match against Canterbury, has been one of Newcastle’s most consistent performers in their charge for a spot in the bottom of the top eight and the Knights had offered him a three-year deal.
However, he was unable to turn down the opportunity to return to the Roosters and play under Trent Robinson, who had given the former schoolboy rugby union star his NRL debut in 2016 after progressing through the club’s pathway program.
“He bought us all into a room, asked us to meet and just told us face to face,” Knights forward Mitch Barnett said. “It was obviously a hard decision for himself, but one he thought was best for him and wherever he ends up he will be a great asset.
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“Connor is probably one of our most professional players in the club so I have no doubt he will remain focused and will want to finish things on a good note. We all do.”
Newcastle players also spoke highly of Watson and said he would be a loss for the club after celebrating his 100th NRL appearance in last weekend’s 16-14 defeat of Cronulla.
Barnett said he was stunned by the announcement.
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“It did surprise me,” he said. “Only just because of Connor’s connection with Newcastle, being from the Central Coast, and he had made the move up here from Sydney.
“It is just one of those things that happens in rugby league. People come and go and we have just got to move on with it.
“He is still our team-mate for the rest of the year and we want to play our best and go as far as we can in this competition. We have got a lot of confidence right now and I am looking forward to going out there on the weekend and ripping in with him.”
Playmaker Jake Clifford, who joined the Knights as a mid-season transfer from North Queensland, said the Newcastle players were disappointed to learn that Watson would be leaving.
“I think a few of the boys are a bit sad,” Clifford said. “They have a good connection with Connor.
“I have only known him since I got here, and I have got along with him really well and I love playing beside him. I don’t think I have ever seen him play a bad game.
“He is such a competitor on the field, and he is a really good mate off it so he is going to be missed.”
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With James Tedesco, Luke Keary, Sam Walker and Sam Verrills expected to be the starting spine for the Roosters next season, Watson is likely to fill the No.14 role for the club.
“Connor is an exciting player and a skilled performer across a number of positions,” Robinson said in a statement announcing the two-year deal.
“He is also a really good person, so we’re looking forward to welcoming him back to the club.”
Robinson has always rated the Central Coast junior highly and only reluctantly agreed to release Watson in 2018 when he fielded a lucrative Knights offer and the chance for more minutes.
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It's understood the three-time premiership-winning coach has always ranked Watson as one of the few Roosters that got away during his time
He played 38 matches in the red, white and blue, and last weekend celebrated his 100th NRL appearance against Cronulla.
Watson's looming return to Sydney comes after a strong 2021 campaign, playing 21 games for Adam O'Brien at lock, five-eighth and as a bench utility.
A long-term ankle injury limited him to just five games in 2020 and saw both he and the Knights come to terms on a one-year deal last year, with Watson backing himself to earn a longer contract when he returned to full fitness.
Newcastle's three-year offer presented exactly that, but the lure of returning to the Roosters ultimately won the day.