Johns: Pearce walking path of greatest halfback
PLAYMAKER Mitchell Pearce has produced stunning purple patches of form throughout his career, but there's something far more permanent this time around that could win him an Origin berth, writes Matty Johns.
For the first month of the season Luke Keary was the NRL's standout player, his performances drew more ink than any others.
Then it was Cody Walker. Walker's high energy, high football IQ style pushed the Rabbitohs through the pack and to the top of the table.
For the last month it's been all Mitchell Pearce.
I wrote about Pearce three weeks ago and resisted the temptation to say he's in 'career best form', because in his career, which is now pushing towards 300 games, he's had a lot of purple patches.
What makes this purple patch different is the manner in which Mitchell is playing. There's more gears to his game, there's a new found patience.
Mitchell Pearce is following a number of great playmakers and becoming more complete and reliable as the clock strikes 30 years.
Warren Ryan often spoke about how Terry Lamb's ability to lead a side around the park and ball play got better the more he went past 30.
When 'the Wok' coached Lamb in the early to mid 80s, the Dogs champion was all high energy, a genius support player.
By the mid 90s the knees were cactus, the high energy not what it was, but he'd developed the art of playmaking ... and led the Bulldogs to the 1995 title. One could argue it was his finest achievement.
In the early years, Alfie Langer would torment big middle defenders with his relentlessness. Langer couldn't be discouraged, he'd take the ball to the line from minute one to minute 80, eventually he'd find the chink.
By the mid to late 90s Alf was winning games by his ability to build pressure. Langer saw the benefits of patience and realised he could kick the Broncos to victory with his last tackle options.
I watched him lead the Broncos to victory one night at the Sydney Football Stadium.
I don't think he took the ball to the line at all, instead putting on a kicking masterclass. Long kicks to the corners, deft kicks to the in-goals.
The opposition beat themselves, such was the pressure.
Brad Fittler arrived on the scene in the late 80s with a punk haircut and a big left foot sidestep.
He played carefree football while Greg Alexander owned the wins and losses.
When the Roosters bought Freddy in the mid 90s, they were after a leader.
Playing against Fittler during that time you could see the strain it took. Leadership is tough, suddenly he had to take responsibility for the wins and losses Brandy once owned.
But Fittler became that great leader, by the time the Chooks won the comp in 2002, you didn't see that trademark left foot step as much, but you saw a complete player.
Allan Bell is an icon of the Newcastle Knights football club. 'AB' no longer has an official role, but he mentored all the playmakers that went through the club from 1988 to 1995.
I cannot begin to tell you the influence he had on myself and Andrew.
He'd follow us home from training and sit for hours going through videotapes of great players and the nuances of their games.
In the last few years Allan has been in frequent contact with Mitchell, chatting to him about his game, encouraging changes, chatting about playing at different speeds, learning the art of patience.
In the early days when I sat with Allan my head would spin, there was so much to take in.
As a young player you feel like you just want to go out there and play, and at times I wondered whether AB's tutelage was too much, setting me back, rather than forwards.
But then one day the penny drops...
All the lessons, the advice, it makes sense.
The penny has dropped for Mitchell. On Saturday Pearce's Knights take on the Melbourne Storm.
It's their biggest challenge yet.
In their victories over the Roosters and Souths both teams went in without crucial creative players, but the Storm are red hot.
The way they dismantled the Warriors was masterful.
And Newcastle a contender?
They're about to find out.
Mitchell Pearce of course is in line for a return to Origin…if he wants it.
It's ironic that the young man he may replace, was him not that long ago.
Mitchell Pearce's career should serve as a lesson and an encouragement for Nathan Cleary.
Nathan is 21.
He is not even scratching the surface of what he will learn and what he will become.