League immortal Andrew Johns says Jarrod Mullen can play his way into a NSW jumper in the next six weeks.
"They’re only talking three guys at the moment – [James] Maloney, [Todd] Carney, [Josh] Reynolds – but Jarrod has got to be in the mix," he said. "If he starts firing, he has to be considered."
Of greater and immediate concern for the Knights, though, is how much interest the off-contract playmaker will generate from rival clubs that might want to lure him out of Newcastle.
The 27-year-old is expected to make an expedited return from a hamstring injury suffered during the Auckland Nines for Saturday afternoon’s match against Canberra at GIO Stadium – his first appearance in the NRL this season.
His appearance comes at an intriguing time, with the five-eighth yet to sign beyond this season. He is set to test himself on the open market, and given his experience and standing, there will be plenty of interest.
The Raiders are one club believed to be already sniffing around. So, too, the Dragons.
“There is no way they could let him leave there,” Johns told Fairfax Media. “He’s a local boy. They’re a totally different team with him in it, because he complements so many players in that team – especially [halfback] Tyrone [Roberts], who is an instinctive player. Jarrod steers them around. When Jarrod’s not there, Tyrone can’t play his natural game. [Newcastle] has been totally missing his direction, but also his leadership.”
Mullen's injury was inopportune, because this season, you sense, is his time to shine.
It all happened very quickly for him, thrust into State of Origin too early seven years ago, and then left without a mentor to learn from when Johns suddenly retired because of a neck injury.
Late last season, as the Knights surged deep into the finals, his maturity started to show.
“I thought last year he grew so much as a player,” Johns said. “I think he struggled with the pressure early on. He debuted when he was still at school. He was thrust in with a lot of responsibility and probably struggled with it. Last year, you could see him come of age, especially in the win against Melbourne.”
Johns is referring to the 18-16 win against the Storm at AAMI Park that catapulted the Knights into the preliminary final against eventual premiers the Roosters.
Mullen was showing glimpses of that form in the Nines, before tearing a hamstring.
The scans upon his return to Australia weren’t pretty: a four-month lay-off was expected, but he has come back sooner than anticipated.
Johns says it gives him enough time to enter the race for NSW’s No.6 jumper ahead of the opening match of the Origin series at Suncorp Stadium on May 28.
All the talk thus far has been about the Reynolds and Carney putting pressure on incumbent Maloney, who is still having nightmares about Queenslander Sam Thaiday terrorising him in last year’s decider.
But don't forget Mullen, says Johns.
“There’s no more open position for NSW than that five-eighth position,” Johns declared. "I might be biased, but Jarrod is one of the best five-eighths in the comp. He kicks with his left foot, he’s such a strong defender. He can run the ball. For him, the higher the grade, the easier he would find it.
“The few times when he’s been close to being picked for NSW, his form has dipped or something has happened to him, like an injury, that has cost him. I hope he puts it all together and he gets a shot.”
The story Newcastle Knights star Jarrod Mullen ready to earn NSW recall, says Andrew Johns first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.