The last time Dane Gagai donned a Knights jersey on home turf in 2017, he was saying goodbye to a club that had just collected their third consecutive wooden spoon.
Leaving the once-struggling side for a much stronger South Sydney squad brought upon some guilt but behind the scenes the Knights centre was always planning a return to Newcastle, one way or another.
“I bought a house here in 2015 and said to my partner we should hold onto it because no matter what happens I wanted to move back either during my career or retirement,” Gagai says.
Fast forward four years and Gagai is back in the Hunter and if the opening two rounds of the NRL Telstra Premiership season are anything to go by, he’s back with a purpose.
The 31-year-old has crossed the line twice in the past fortnight but last Sunday’s first home game of the season meant more as the crowd welcomed him back with a big reception.
“For me personally, one of the hardest things about leaving the club in 2017 was saying goodbye to the fans.
Gagai's real finish
“We came last for three years but had over 15,000 people turn up to games. It shows how much this team means to the town. I’ve felt the love since I’ve been back and have always missed the place.
“When the opportunity rose to come back, I knew it was the right time and to be able to finish my career here is going to be awesome.”
Plenty has changed around the club since Gagai’s last stint but some familiar faces still remain.
Take for example the Saifiti twins.
They made their NRL debuts as teenagers alongside Gagai in 2016 while Mitch Barnett and Lachlan Fitzgibbon are the only players left from the 2017 squad.
“I remember the day I met the Saifiti boys and they were getting shown around the facilities, they would’ve been about 17,” Gagai said.
“I thought holy sh*t, who are these two Fijian boys? They’re both 6’4 already.
“Since then Daniel’s gone onto do some great things at the Origin level but one thing I liked last year was that Jacob was one of the best forwards in the comp.”
Gagai’s departure from South Sydney hasn’t been as documented as his former Rabbitohs teammate Adam Reynolds but there’s no mistaking the Maroons centre has fitted into his old club seamlessly.
Newcastle’s attack struggled last season but has already showed signs of being more unpredictable with Gagai’s ability on the right edge taking pressure away from Bradman Best on the left.
“As an opposing team when I was at Souths we could lock the Knights in last year because there were a lot of one-up carries but we’ve got a lot more shape now,” Gagai said.
“If teams want to compress we’ve got the ability to play footy. There’s a lot more options and it’s a great way to play in this competition.
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“It’s also the depth of a squad that makes a team great. When I was at Souths everyone sees the star players on the field but what they don’t see is the players that are training who play in NSW Cup.
“They do opposed sessions and are pushing us to be better. It’s the whole squad that makes a campaign and that’s what I’ve noticed most here coming back.
“You can name guys like Kalyn Ponga, David Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti but we were missing all three and it didn’t phase us.
“There’s so much trust in the players that come in and that culture is something special.”
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Gagai is wary, however, of not letting the opening two weeks get to the players’ heads ahead of their showdown with Penrith in Bathurst on Saturday.
“We really wanted to back up our performance against the Roosters at the SCG so now it’s important we do it again on the road against Penrith.”