This article was first written for and published by The Roar.
It was the stuff that fairytales are made of at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night when the Newcastle Knights won their opening game of the season against the Manly Sea Eagles 19-18 in a golden point thriller.
We know that premierships are not won and finals berths are not earnt in Round 1, but that win was a fitting reward for the 23,516 fans in attendance – a crowd so good that it was Newcastle’s third-biggest first-round attendance since the club was welcomed into the NRL competition in 1998.
Such a big crowd reflects the sense of anticipation that has followed the Knights throughout the offseason.
With a whole host of new recruits including Connor Watson, Aiden Guerra, Kalyn Ponga, Herman Ese’ese, Chris Heighinton and Tautau Moga, many have the Knights making the top eight come September.
For some that might be based on rugged football analysis, but for others that might reflect a sense of hope and optimism for a club that has won three successive wooden spoons.
Despite all these new faces that have joined the Knights over the offseason, I know that there was one new recruit in particular that Novocastrians had turned out to see – their million-dollar man, Mitchell Pearce.
The former Sydney Rooster has come to Newcastle for a new beginning and it could not have gotten off to a better start. Following an early penalty, the Knights executed a set play where the ball moved through Pearce’s hands and then eventually onto Kalyn Ponga, who scored the Knights opening try for the season.
But Pearce really stepped up when his new club needed him, kicking the winning field-goal in the 88th minute to seal the Knights their first opening-round win since 2015.
When Pearce slotted that field goal, he raised his hand, leapt into the air and was mobbed – embraced in a group hug from every Newcastle Knight on the field.
They came from every corner of the field to pile on to their new halfback and the stands erupted.
Pearce is a player who has been much maligned during his rugby league career. It’s a career which has been no stranger to controversy – whether it be on or off the field.
But in all the conversations about Pearce, what often gets forgotten is the fact that he is a very good club halfback.
He is an exceptionally experienced player – having played almost 250 games during his career and being picked for State of Origin, City versus Country, Prime Minister’s XIII and All-Stars matches.
He also helped guide the Roosters to a premiership in 2013 when he was paired with James Maloney in the halves.
He is not Andrew Johns. He is not Johnathan Thurston. He is not Shaun Johnson.
But he is a capable halfback who is committed in defence, has a decent kicking game and has certainly matured in the later part of his career – perhaps being forced to do so following the off-field incident which almost ended his career in 2016.
As I watched Pearce on Friday night, a couple of things stood out to me. He still doesn’t take on the line enough and his kicking game is not perfect, but you cannot fault his effort.
He is often accused of going missing during key parts of a match.
There was no sign of this on Friday night. He was animated for the full 88 minutes. He was barking orders, directing traffic and you could tell, if nothing else, that he was desperate to prove himself and to play well for his new club.
That sort of desperate attitude is an attitude which earns my respect, particularly after a tumultuous 2017.
To say 2017 wasn’t an easy year for Pearce is an understatement.
Despite playing some very good club football in early in 2017 which saw him kick a match-winning field goal against the St George Illawarra Dragons on Anzac Day and then weeks later crossing for the match-winning try against the Canterbury Bulldogs, there was still much disappointment when Pearce was selected to play in the State of Origin series.
After 15 Origin games, the general consensus was that picking Pearce was the definition of insanity – doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
And unfortunately, he disappointed again. It was certainly not from a lack of effort, but with last year’s defeat, this takes Pearce’s record at a State of Origin level to seven losses in a row with him in the halves.
The Roosters may have gone on to play finals football, but they exited in a disappointing fashion when the North Queensland Cowboys beat them 29-16 in the preliminary final.
Then, in the offseason, the Roosters showed their hand when they recruited star halfback Cooper Cronk from the Melbourne Storm.
While there was no formal indication from the Roosters that there was no room for Pearce, who was on the verge of becoming one of the club’s most capped players, the writing was on the wall.
Rugby league can certainly be a game of ego and Pearce’s would have taken a battering last year, particularly from being pushed to the side by the club he had played his entire career at.
It takes strength of character for Pearce to do what he has done – pick up his entire life and move to a club that really needs him.
But to his credit, he appears to be relishing the opportunity for a new start and looks ready to help lead his new club in 2018.
Friday night was just one game, but I hope Mitchell Pearce’s fresh start brings him plenty of success.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that he has an entire fan-base ready to embrace him as a key part of the Knights team. Newcastle loves its footy and loves, even more, the players that wear the red and blue.
A new start. A new team. And a group of fans who have already embraced him.
Could this be the year we finally see the best of Mitchell Pearce at the club level? For all those Knights fans out there, I certainly hope so.