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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Teenage Newcastle Knights debutant Kristian Mapapalangi the centre of attention

FIRST IMPRESSION: Kristian Mapapalangi will debut for the Knights on Sunday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

IN a week the Newcastle Knights would prefer to forget, there has been at least one smiling face amid all the doom and gloom.

With the media preoccupied covering the toilet-cubicle incident involving Kalyn Ponga and Kurt Mann, and the dropping of Bradman Best and Enari Tuala for keeping the team bus waiting, the selection of Kristian Mapapalangi for his NRL debut has largely been reduced to a footnote.

For coach Adam O'Brien, however, delivering that news to the club's 333rd top-grade player has been the highlight of a tough few days.

"I know there was a lot of waterworks, a lot of emotion, when I told him he was making his debut," O'Brien said.

"After a pretty crappy week, it was probably the one part that reminded me I love being a coach, when you get to hand a jersey to a young bloke.

"He'll bring some energy to us on the weekend."

Mapapalangi, still only 19, is expected to play left-side centre alongside Edrick Lee against Canberra Raiders at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday.

The Manly junior joined the Knights last year and, during the pre-season, O'Brien gave a remarkable assessment of him when he told the Newcastle Herald: "He's got the skills of someone like a Latrell [Mitchell}, like a young Michael Jennings but with a bit of Cody Walker about him. He's a big body as well. He's certainly an exciting young talent."

O'Brien said it was "not ideal circumstances" for a player to be making his top-grade debut this week, but Mapapalangi was "really excited" about the challenge.

He is likely to mark powerful Canberra centre Matt Timoko.

Mapapalangi was not available for interview this week but told the Herald in the pre-season: "Playing NRL, that's obviously the dream but I just want to make sure I'm ready when I do hit the big stage.

"Until then, I'll keep working hard, really learn my craft and listen to the coaches and keep trying to improve my game."

Meanwhile, O'Brien has defended the decision to demote Best and Tuala, rather than just fining them.

"I think removing them from the game hurts the most," O'Brien said.

"They're two young blokes that made a blue, and people will look at it as being harsh ... at the end of the day, that's my decision.

"I think it's best for their long-term development to miss this week."

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