NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA – JUNE 29: Mitchell Pearce of the Newcastle Knights looks to pass the ball during the round 15 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Brisbane Broncos at McDonald Jones Stadium on June 29, 2019 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)
Newcastle fans will be eager to find who lands as Mitchell Pearce’s halves partner for 2020, with coach Adam O’Brien set to be tested with the call after the Knights’ pre-season training began this week.
Teenage rookie Phoenix Crossland has already been identified by O’Brien as a strong contender for the position, with the youngster not looking to get ahead of himself just yet.
“Of course it’s a goal of mine, for sure,” Crossland told the Newcastle Herald yesterday.
“But right now, if I’m honest, getting the number six jersey for round one, it’s probably the furthest thing from my mind. There are a whole heap of little goals I need to tick off first before I can even allow myself to think about that.”
The biggest hill Crossland will have to climb for the time being is his fitness, as he looks to return from a stress fracture in his heel that ruined his 2019 campaign.
Crossland didn’t require surgery but his rehabilitation has been steady across the off-season.
While a majority of his teammates enjoyed an eight-week break over the off-season, Crossland limited himself to just one week in New Zealand before returning to the track.
“I got away to New Zealand for a week and that was about all I gave myself,” he said. “I’ve had to come in for most of the off-season because of my ankle and chip away at that.
“But in some ways, it was probably a bit of a blessing in disguise knowing the pre-season was going to be really hard. I was able to sort of come in and rehab and keep plugging away at my fitness and do some kicking and passing and all that sort of stuff to get myself ready for the start of training.”
The Knights are keeping close tabs on his return, while the 19-year-old believes he could run for hours.
Crossland was restricted to a session on the bike while returning Knights players endured two 1.5km time trials.
“It’s been about doing things right and easing my way back in a little but I’m doing most of it,” he said.
Crossland believes the difficulty in training has lifted from last year’s reign under former coach Nathan Brown.
“We are only a couple of days in but it’s been pretty tough so far but it’s been good,” he said.
“I think the word was before we came back it would be tough but it’s probably a bit harder than expected. Every pre-season is hard but I think this one might have another level to it.”
O’Brien’s confidence in Crossland has only been built from his 12 minute senior stint against the Bulldogs late into the season and his workrate on the training track.
The Knights coach has taken a liking to Crossland’s physicality and strength while admiring his kicking ability, as O’Brien will be sure to look into lifting some of the weight from Pearce.
When asked about his rising chances alongside fellow utility Connor Watson, Crossland remained humble.
“That’s obviously a good thing to hear but obviously like everyone, I’ve got to keep trying to impress.” he said.
“I’ve still got a heap to learn and plenty of parts of my game I need to work on and improve. That’s the priority. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do.”