Knights coach Nathan Brown rated captain Mitchell Pearce the equal of any player in the NRL after the premiership-winning former Roosters halfback led Newcastle to a 38-12 rout of his old club at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.
Behind a menacing pack, Pearce scored a try for the fifth straight match and teamed up with fellow game-breaker Kalyn Ponga to guide the Knights to a fifth consecutive win and fourth spot on the NRL ladder.
“He’s probably been as good as any player in the comp, I’d imagine, and as dominant and as good as any,” Brown said after Pearce’s fifth successive man-of-the-match performance.
“Obviously there’s some sides that have got some blokes that are playing well out there … but obviously Pearcey’s been quite influential on our team.
“We’ve won five in a row so he’s done really well. His on-field leadership has always been first-class, and that’s why we made him captain… and the way he drives the boys, and the way they respond to him, is first-class. His commitment to the team is one of the big things that’s turned us around.”
Celebrating in front of fans on the southern hill, Pearce kissed the Knights logo on his jersey after scoring from a Ponga pass just before half-time to give Newcastle a 22-6 lead at the break.
“My heart and soul are purely with Newcastle and I couldn’t be happier in my life up here,” Pearce told Channel Nine after the game.
“I absolutely love the club. They’ve been unbelievable to me and I love my team-mates up here, and that’s who I’m playing for.
“Obviously this is my home now. I’ve moved up here, I love the place, and that was probably just a little sign of thanks to the fans and the town that’s taken me in and given me plenty of love.”
Brown said his players were well aware of the Roosters’ decision to rest halfback Cooper Cronk and he did not need to use that for extra motivation.
“We’ve had four wins, playing in front of our biggest crowd for a long time, and we’re playing the premiers, so everyone wants to play the premiers and do well,” Brown said.
“It was a great challenge for our pack to go out there and compete against them.”
Brown was pleased with Newcastle’s physical performance in the middle of the field, and the comprehensive nature of the win, but with an eye to upcoming games against Souths and Melbourne in the next few weeks, was not getting carried away.
“They’ll be great tests,” he said.
“But from where the club’s been and what we’re coming through, it was only a couple of years ago the Roosters really gave us some big scores against us on a number of occasions, so to be able to get a win against those guys is pleasing for the club.
“You take into account Cooper was rested and they lost [Luke] Keary but I just liked the way we went about our game in the defensive part for long periods.
“I thought our line speed and our ability to send their good players and big men backwards at times over the period of the game was great, and we should get a lot of confidence out of it.”