Despite rumours to the contrary, Herman Ese’ese never wanted to leave the Knights last year.
As he was doing his best to recapture his 2018 form, content to wait until the end of the season to sort out his future, the former Broncos and Bulldogs front-rower was being shopped around.
Former Knights coach Nathan Brown had some concerns about his defensive technique in a pre-season loss to Cronulla and left him out of the 17-man squad for their first game of the season, and for the first month he split time between the NRL and Canterbury Cup squads.
“Personally, I thought it wasn’t my best season. There was a lot going on, obviously, with rumours of contract talks about me leaving, and ‘Browny’ and I didn’t quite see eye to eye last season,” Ese’ese told NRL.com.
“I wasn’t really happy with my season but I knew I could be a better player, based on my first season here in 2018, and I think things kind of escalated with the rumours about me leaving, so I wasn’t really too satisfied with the season.”
Ese’ese started just two of the 18 NRL games he played last year, having been in the run-on side for 19 of 23 games in 2018, but had fallen behind off-season recruits David Klemmer and Tim Glasby and soon-to-be NSW prop Daniel Saifiti, and appeared certain to be squeezed out.
A return to the Bulldogs was mooted but Ese’ese, who has bought a home in Newcastle and still had another 18 months left on his three-year contract, was not interested in going anywhere.
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“I wasn’t close at all. I always wanted to stay here,” he said.
“My manager was going and talking to other clubs, but I made it clear to my manager that I didn’t want to do any contract talks until the season finished, so I wasn’t focusing on leaving here.
“I just wanted to finish off the season strong, have a week off after our last game, then go into contract talks, so my mindset was always staying here, no matter what.”
Shortly after Newcastle’s season ended with a humiliating 54-10 loss to Penrith, and Ese’ese began contemplating the idea of continuing his NRL career elsewhere, a phone call from incoming Knights coach Adam O’Brien ended any plans of relocating.
“It was definitely reassuring that the new coach wanted me to stay here,” he said.
“It was about a week after our last game against Penrith, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do, so getting that phone call changed everything.
“It made me so happy to know that the new coach, a coach coming from two good systems at Melbourne Storm and the Roosters, was seeing something in me and my ability, so that gave me a huge confidence boost ... I was stoked.
“He’s getting the best out of me this pre-season so far, and I’m very confident I’m going to have my best season yet, and that’s how I’m going to repay him… to play the house down for him.”
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Heading into the final year of his contract, Ese’ese wants to convince O’Brien that he is worth retaining beyond 2020.
And the 25-year-old New Zealand and Samoan international is not satisfied with just being in Newcastle’s top 17 for their March 14 season-opener against the Warriors.
“My main focus is to be in the 17, but I’m trying to aim for something higher and be in the starting forward pack,” he said.
“That’s what I’m working towards this pre-season, then come out firing in the trials and make a statement in front of the coach and put my hand up to say I’m ready to start.
“After last year’s pre-season, I was ready to go and back up my season in 2018, but things went downhill for me, so that’s been my motivation this whole off-season.
“That’s always been in the back of my head, how I finished off last season but how I started too, and to answer those people who have doubts about me, so I can’t wait to come out firing.”