IF the Newcastle Knights are to emerge from the play-off wilderness next season, then the resilience and tenacity they showed in Saturday’s win against Penrith has to become a benchmark.
Newcastle coach Nathan Brown acknowledged afterwards that Newcastle’s 20-12 triumph at Panthers Stadium was the best defensive performance of his 70-game tenure.
Neutral observers might feel inclined to argue that the Panthers, minus injured playmaker James Maloney, were pedestrian and error-riddled.
For much of the first half it seemed the home team could not complete a set without a fumble, a forward pass or a play-the-ball faux pas.
But to focus on such lapses would be to deny Brown’s troops credit they thoroughly deserved after knocking over a team playing for a top-four berth in the finals.
The Panthers are a big, physically imposing outfit and dominated possession and field position early in the second half, at which point Newcastle were clinging to a 12-4 lead.
Penrith seemed convinced that if they kept battering away, the Knights would eventually crack. And their belief was based on apparently sound logic – no team over the past five seasons has leaked more points than Newcastle.
Before round 23 kicked off, the Knights were, once again, statistically the NRL’s worst defensive team, conceding on average 25.3 points per game.
Yet this time, when the going got tough, Newcastle rose to the challenge instead of buckling under pressure.
Their attitude and intent were encapsulated by Mitch Barnett flying out of the line to put a hit on Penrith winger Dallin Watene-Zalezniak, and Lachlan Fitzgibbon getting in the face of Corey Harawira-Naera and laughing after his back-row rival coughed up possession.
Eventually Penrith took umbrage at the unexpected resistance, their frustration culminating in a brawl that landed four players, two from each team, in the sin-bin.
Again, when push came to shove, the Knights showed no signs of backing down.
It was the type of long-overdue aggression Newcastle will need not just in their quest for next year’s finals, but also in their last two games of 2018.
Beating Penrith was no mean feat, but the Knights should need no reminding their remaining opponents are Cronulla (away) and St George Illawarra (home), who have already hammered Newcastle 48-10 and 30-12 respectively this season.
The Sharks, in particular, have bullied and intimidated the Knights in recent times, winning their past seven games by a collective scoreline of 237-84, or 33-12 on average. Their skipper, Paul Gallen, has made little attempt over the past few years to treat Newcastle with even a semblance of respect.
Gallen leads one of the NRL’s most experienced and formidable packs. It will be big ask to beat them at their own game, but if the Knights can reproduce last week’s effort, they at least have half a chance.