PLAY-OFF fringe-dwellers Newcastle will get a final chance to stake their claim as genuine contenders when they host the fourth-placed Storm on Sunday.
The resurgent Knights are yet to beat a top-four team this season and the match against the defending NRL premiers will be their last regular season opportunity.
One of seven sides to have benefited from the luck of the NRL’s uneven draw, seventh-placed Newcastle (25 points) were allocated just five games against the Roosters (36), Rabbitohs (34), Sea Eagles (31) and Storm (31).
Those teams have occupied the top four spots for most of the season and, apart from the potential for a change of order among themselves in the last four rounds, will almost certainly hold those positions heading into the finals.
Two teams, the Bulldogs and Warriors, were scheduled two games against all four teams, yet the Knights, Broncos, Cowboys, Storm, Panthers, Dragons and Roosters had just five.
The Raiders, Titans and Tigers were one short of the full complement, with seven games each against the four most consistent teams of 2012. Manly and Souths had the maximum possible of six each against their fellow top-four dwellers, and the Sharks and Eels had six each.
Apart from being blanked 32-0 by Manly at Brookvale five months ago, the Knights have held their own in their three other games against the big four.
The most recent was a 28-12 home loss to the Roosters on July 28, and they were still in the hunt trailing 18-12 until the title favourites finished with two tries in the last seven minutes.
“We matched it with them today physically, which was important,” Knights coach Wayne Bennett said after that game. “It got away at the end, more with our poor execution. We just put ourselves under too much pressure and missed too many opportunities, but we can fix that up.”
It was a similar story at ANZ Stadium on June 1, when Newcastle gave as good as they got in a 25-18 loss to Souths in a game in which both teams were without their Origin representatives.
The closest the Knights have come to toppling a top-four team was at AAMI Park on June 16, when they led the Storm 14-10 deep into the second half only to concede a try to Billy Slater in the 69th minute for a 16-14 defeat.
“Sometimes you lose and you win, so I hope today was one of those days – what we got out of it as a team and we realise how good we can be,” Bennett said after that match. “We played some great footy. It was a wonderful football game, played in tremendous spirit by both teams, but we keep walking away with the effort but not any points at the moment.”
Since then, the Knights have lost just once – to the Roosters – in a six-game stretch that included away victories over the fifth-placed Bulldogs and sixth-placed Sharks.
The Storm have won their past six against the Knights but the past five were at their AAMI Park fortress. Melbourne’s last appearance showing at Hunter Stadium was on March 20, 2010, and the Storm won 20-14, but the Knights hold an overall 9-4 advantage in Newcastle.
Speaking after their last-gasp 18-14 victory over the Sharks last Saturday, which pushed them past Canberra (24) into seventh spot and within one of Cronulla (26), Bennett was buoyant about his team’s chances against the Storm.
“We go in there in a good shape and in a good mood because we’re playing gutsy, and they’ll compete for everything and we’ll compete for everything, so it will be a good test for us,” he said.
“We played them six or seven weeks ago and it was a big game . . . and we got beaten by two points. We just got run down at the end, so it will be interesting to see how we go this time.”
Centre Dane Gagai, whose two tries against Cronulla included the match winner, said the Knights had grown in confidence since pushing Melbourne all the way.
“Ever since we played that game the effort from the boys has been there the whole time . . . We’ve just got to execute a few things a bit better,” Gagai said.
“Since that Storm game, we’ve really taken . . . a bit of passion for the boys out of it and made sure we’re not letting each other down.”
The match review committee found Newcastle’s Kade Snowden and Cronulla’s Ben Pomeroy had no case to answer after both players were reported last Saturday.