THE Newcastle Knights can climb into the NRL top eight next weekend after continuing their mini-renaissance with a 22-10 win against Canterbury at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
The Magic Round victory over the Bulldogs, which followed successes against Parramatta and the Warriors, has reassured fans that Newcastle's season is back on track after enduring a five-game losing streak between rounds two and six.
Newcastle are now ninth on the ladder, two points adrift of the teams ranked fifth to eighth, and will be chasing a fourth straight win when they tackle St George Illawarra (10th) at Mudgee on Sunday. Given that Manly (fifth) and Cronulla (seventh) play immediately after the Knights-Dragons game, a win would potentially enable Newcastle to leapfrog into the eight.
The last time the Knights won four consecutive games was in the first four rounds of the 2015 season, under former coach Rick Stone.
Newcastle's turnaround has been based on old-school fundamentals, according to coach Nathan Brown.
"We ran hard and carried the ball straight and direct and chased our tackles," Brown said.
"It was pretty simple really, what the boys did.
"Today I thought we competed well. There was nothing tactically genius about what the boys did, but they toughed it out and hung in there.
"If we can do that against any side - there's some areas of our game that we need to learn from today - but every game we've played that we've carried the ball direct and kicked and chased well, it might be basic, but when we've done that, we seem to give ourselves a chance."
Mitchell Pearce produced another inspirational captain's knock against Canterbury.
He scored a fine solo try by winning the race to ground his own grubber kick and produced a try assist to put Lachlan Fitgibbon over. But perhaps his most important play came two minutes from full-time, with Newcastle clinging to a six-point lead, when he scrambled to regain a loose ball, which ultimately allowed fullback Kalyn Ponga to dart over for the match-sealing try.
It was the type of performance that would surely have been noted by NSW Origin coach Brad Fittler, as pressure mounts on incumbent Blues halfback Nathan Cleary.
"He's playing really well," Knights coach Nathan Brown said of Pearce.
"You've only got to look at the end of the game and who got the loose ball before Kalyn scored. He's certainly got his game in order.
"He scored a nice try, created one just before half-time and the loose ball and the compete bit is probably the most pleasing thing.
"When your captain competes that well, and Timmy Glasby competes like he does, and Dave Klemmer, it becomes a bit contagious.
"That's something we can hopefully keep doing well as a club and a team."
Pearce admitted afterwards that a decision to "simplify my game" had paid dividends in the past three weeks.
"Footy comes off the back of competing. As captain it's my responsibility to set the standard there," he said.
Pearce was far from Newcastle's only hero against the Bulldogs. Klemmer topped the tackle count (48) and yardage (162) in his first game against his former club, Ponga scored his fourth try in as many games and set one up for centre Hymel Hunt, and heavyweights Daniel Saifiti and Herman Ese'ese constantly bent the defensive line.
But there will be tougher tests ahead than the last-placed Bulldogs. Newcastle's next four opponents are the Dragons (away), Roosters (home), Souths (away) and Melbourne (away).