Newcastle has been through worse, says Mullen  

Brent Read and margie McDonald  

From: The Australian  

March 04, 2010 12:00AM  

THE game's powerbrokers assembled at ANZ Stadium yesterday for a low-key launch to the NRL season. In a room full of chief executives, players and media, one subject dominated conversation -- whether the drug crisis at Newcastle would claim more players, or maybe even a club.  

Knights captain Kurt Gidley, still on crutches, wore a grim look which had nothing to do with the knee injury which has ruled him out for the opening month of the season. Already frustrated at being unable to train and play, Gidley's leadership is facing its ultimate test. 

He declined to speak to the media yesterday. Instead, halfback Jarrod Mullen stepped into the breach and described how the club had been affected by another drug scandal. 

Yesterday, it officially claimed Chris Houston when his resignation was accepted by the club. Houston, charged with supplying drugs, is fighting for his career. His former club is fighting for its life. 

"Obviously shocked," Mullen said. "We have had a bit of a chat about it. Hopefully, this can bring the boys tighter together. We have been through worse things in the past. 

"It probably still hasn't sunk in. All the boys are there for (Houston) so hopefully we can stick by him." 

Physically replacing Houston is the easy part. The Knights have the depth to cover for a player who was considered a future leader of the club, and a contender for State of Origin this season. The bigger issue is whether they have the mental fortitude to overcome their second significant setback in months. Late last year, Danny Wicks was charged with possession and supply of drugs. He too tendered his resignation. There were whispers at the time that more players would be implicated. The Knights had faith the issue was dead. They were wrong. 

"It's just a repeat of last time," Mullen said. 

Asked how the club would overcome Houston's absence, Mullen rattled off a list of potential replacements. They included Cameron Ciraldo, Cory Paterson and youngster Zane Tetavano. All capable footballers, albeit not in the Houston class. 

"You would be lying if you said it wasn't a loss," Mullen said. 

"Obviously he's a big loss to us. We have players like Cameron Ciraldo and Cory Paterson, who are good backrowers, and hopefully they can fill the void left by Chris Houston. 

"We have a young kid -- Zane Tetavano -- he played under-20s last year and he's looking big and strong. We have players to come in and fill the spot." 

Mullen's optimism was admirable given the pall the game's latest controversy has cast over another season launch. 

No one could avoid it. 

"Look, whatever has happened in Newcastle has happened and I'm not going to comment on that," Parramatta superstar Jarryd Hayne said. "I'm here for rugby league." 

Brisbane and Australia captain Darren Lockyer said: "Look, it'd be nice to avoid it all. But we can't do much about that right now. 

"Today was a positive thing for rugby league. We're here to promote the season and the game." 

For Newcastle, it is a season which has begun like few others. 

The Knights walk a financial tightrope at the best of times. Success on the field is paramount to survival off it. 

A club which has prided itself on its spirit and togetherness is about to face arguably the most challenging period in its 23-year history. Mullen will be in the middle of it. 

Yesterday, he was asked where he considered himself in the pecking order for NSW. 

Not surprisingly, it was the last thing on his mind. Mullen and his teammates have bigger issues to confront. 

"Like I said, hopefully, it can bring the boys closer together," Mullen said. 

"We have trained hard in the off-season and we know we have a job to do. We can't let it distract us too much."