KNIGHTS second-rower Sione Mata'utia is back running freely and has rarely been as excited about a game of rugby league.
Newcastle resume their COVID-19 halted season against Penrith at Campbelltown Stadium on Sunday.
Mata'utia could barely sleep on the weekend and watched old video clips as he counted down the days to the competition restart.
Sidelined with a knee injury for the opening two rounds in March, Mata'utia's last premiership encounter was against the Panthers at the end of 2019.
The pandemic-forced break has not only given Mata'utia extra time to recover and push his case for selection in a 17-man squad named on Tuesday, but also renewed his desire to be out in the middle again.
"Minimal sleep, I didn't get much, I was that excited all weekend," Mata'utia said on Monday. "I wanted to do something all weekend and I just had so much time to think ... just watching old clips of games recorded on my Fox[tel] and starting to get keen. I'm very excited, but it's weird as well. The game is back on again and I just want to play as quick as possible."
The Knights kick off against another undefeated outfit almost 72 hours after proceedings get underway between the Broncos and Parramatta in Brisbane on Thursday night.
In a timely boost, Kalyn Ponga is reportedly close to finalising a $1.1 million a year extension that will keep the excitement machine in Newcastle until the end of the 2025 season.
Mata'uita has confidence back in his knee and is set to come into the back-row for Mitch Barnett, who had neck surgery after the 42-24 rout of the Wests Tigers on March 22 - their last match before the NRL was shut down.
"It's coming along well and I'm feeling fit," the 23-year-old said. "Match fitness is a whole different story, but training wise I'm pretty fit. The knee has come along really well and I haven't strapped it for a while so that is always a good sign leading into games. I'm feeling pretty confident on it and hopefully I get the run-on [spot] this week."
Mata'utia has welcomed the competition for positions, after the Knights added more depth to the pack with the arrival this week of hooker Andrew McCullough.
"Like anything, if you have plenty of competition it's always healthy for players moving into weekend games," Mata'utia said.
"It's healthy for the environment because you get players pushing to the next level and pushing themselves to levels they didn't think they could.
"It's always healthy and it's keeping players honest. Especially at a time like this when you've got NSW Cup boys who aren't playing at the moment.
"So you've always got to be ready to go ... someone is going to get injured or someone is going to get tapped on the shoulder in a couple of weeks time.
"Eighteen straight games, there's going to be some sore bodies and managing loads as well. Plenty of competition for positions which is good."
"He [McCullough] brings a lot of experience," Mata'utia said. "I was pretty happy when we signed him. He's definitely a decent player. I've played him for the last seven years and he can definitely steer a team pretty well through the middle ... I'm excited to see how he goes."
Mata'utia touched on the "big loss" for Penrith with playmaker Nathan Cleary out suspended, but said the Knights weren't focused on targetting his replacement in the halves.
"It's no different for our game plan and it starts with our defence," he said.
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