For a fleeting moment last November, Mason Lino second-guessed his decision to join Newcastle.
Lino had just heard that his former club, the New Zealand Warriors, had granted long-serving halfback Shaun Johnson an immediate release.
Two months earlier, Samoan-born Lino had been granted a release from the final year of his own contract with the Warriors to sign a two-year deal with the Knights.
As Johnson’s understudy and occasional halves partner, and an NYC premiership-winner with the Warriors in 2014, he had to be satisfied with 17 NRL appearances since his debut the following year.
Looking at the big picture, he saw a brighter future across the Tasman in Newcastle working under coach Nathan Brown and alongside Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga.
But when he heard Johnson was also headed for Auckland Airport’s departure gates, and eventually a new home at Cronulla, you could hardly blame Lino for a face-palm and some doubt about the path he chose.
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“A lot of people have asked me that, so I guess you could say yes and no,” Lino told NRL.com.
“Yes, because obviously an opportunity was there [after Johnson’s exit], but no, because I would have never learned all the stuff I’m learning now from ‘Browny’ and ‘Junior’ (Pearce) about how to play halfback and I would have never met all these good guys at the Knights.
“I don’t regret anything. I’m really grateful to be here and I’m hoping I can perform and produce something good for the Knights.”
Lino, who turned 24 last month, appreciated Newcastle’s interest.
“I kind of wanted to get away and try something new, so this was it,” Lino said.
“I’ve learnt a lot from ‘Browny’ and ‘Junior’ and ‘Shep’ (Knights assistant coach James Shepherd), because they’ve taught me a lot about the game as a halfback and I’m really enjoying it here.
“I’d like to repay that faith the Knights have shown in me. I loved my time at the Warriors but I knew they needed to move on, so this is home for me now and I love it here.
“I just have to make sure when I get the opportunity that I put my best foot forward.”
Lino will miss the opening rounds of the season after sustaining a lower-leg injury early in the second half of Newcastle’s ISP trial against Newtown at Maitland last Saturday.
Brown had intended using Lino in the NRL trial against Cronulla later that day, and a chance to go head to head against former Warriors team-mate Johnson, but when he returns he will have to bide his time back in the ISP ranks and wait for another opportunity.
Lino first appeared on Newcastle’s radar when the club’s former head of football, Darren Mooney, saw him playing for the Warriors’ second-tier NSW Cup team in 2017.
“Mase is a kid who came through their 20s then spent a couple of years in reserve grade, then his form really started to pick up,” Brown explained.
“Moons was watching him not last year but the year before, and noticed how much improvement he’d made from his first year in reserve grade.
“Moons monitored him, then he got some first-grade time, and of the seven or eight games he played last year, he played in a winning team something like 75 per cent of the time, which showed how he was developing as a player.”
The Knights will start the season with Ponga and Pearce at six and seven and Connor Watson at fullback, but Brown is prepared to move Ponga back to fullback and give Lino another chance at the top level if the team needs to be tinkered with and the Samoan international deserves a shot.
“We’d like to think off the back of last year, he would get some confidence out of that and come here to apply pressure,” Brown said.
“Or if he plays well enough, he could force himself into the team, because ‘KP’ (Ponga) can move, and the likelihood of Origin for one or two of our players, if we’re going well, would open the door for him.
“You certainly don’t bring a bloke in and tell him he’s going to be a back-up.
“But Mase knew his starting base was as a back-up to these guys, and his job is to play well enough so that when he gets his chance, he holds someone out or makes someone change position.”