KNIGHTS coach Adam O'Brien admits he might struggle to find enough fit players to name a 21-man squad this week after Newcastle's horrendous injury toll escalated in a brutal 22-13 loss to St George Illawarra at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday.
Already without key players Kalyn Ponga, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Edrick Lee and Bradman Best, the Knights lost skipper Mitchell Pearce (pectoral), Tex Hoy (hamstring) and Kurt Mann (concussion) against the Dragons, while prop David Klemmer battled to finish the match with a knee problem.
Pearce is the major worry and, if scans confirm he needs surgery, he could be facing several months on the sidelines.
When he ruptured his pectoral in 2018, in his first season with Newcastle, Pearce missed nine games.
Rookies Phoenix Crossland and Dominic Young are also injured, which leaves O'Brien with the unenviable task of scraping up a squad for Saturday's clash with Gold Coast Titans at CBus Super Stadium.
"I don't think I'll be able to name 21 ... naming the team is going to be a real big hurdle this week," O'Brien said at the post-match press conference.
Given the Knights were three men down for most of the second half, O'Brien said it was "pretty much carnage" and told his players he was "proud" of their efforts against the Dragons, who fought back from a 13-6 deficit to notch their third successive victory.
"I think the members, sponsors and fans can walk away rightfully disappointed with the scoreboard," he said. "But I don't think you can walk away disappointed with the character in the team.
"I told them I was proud of them ... the last five minutes they put themselves in with a shot of stealing the game."
Dragons coach Anthony Griffin paid tribute to the never-say-die effort from the home team.
"Obviously the opposition were really brave, but we just got done what we needed to get done," Griffin said.
The return of veteran playmaker Blake Green, who played almost half an hour off the bench in his first game since undergoing a knee reconstruction last season, offered some consolation for O'Brien.
The coach is also hopeful that dynamic fullback Kalyn Ponga will be cleared to play his first game this year, after off-season shoulder surgery.
"If he's not right, he's not right," O'Brien said of Ponga. "I won't rush him. It's only round four."
Adding to Newcastle's concern, Klemmer was placed on report for two separate incidents in the first half, an alleged elbow on Blake Lawrie in a scrum, and a late tackle on Corey Norman.
Bench prop Jacob Saifiti was also put on report after a second-half melee.
The Knights led 7-6 at the break, with a Mann field goal in the 40th minute all that separated the two sides.
The Dragons appeared to have scored first through winger Mikaele Ravalawa, only for the video referee to rule there had been a knock-on in the lead-up.
Newcastle made the visitors pay almost immediately when Pearce hoisted a bomb and winger Cody Ramsey fumbled, gifting a try to centre Gehamat Shibasaki.
Newcastle led until the 32nd minute, when Hoy spilled a high kick and forward Trent Merrin scooped up the dregs, dummied and scored.
The Knights extended their lead in the 48th minute, when bench prop Josh King crashed onto a short ball, spun out of an attempted tackle and scored just his second NRL try. Mitch Barnett's goal made it 13-6.
The Dragons responded four minutes later when Tariq Sims steamed into a gap and scored against his former club.
Green entered the game in the 56th minute and his return could hardly have been more timely, in the absence of Pearce.
Four minutes later, Sims charged down a Green clearing kick, regathered and raced away to score between the posts, to stun the 21,770-strong crowd.
Zac Lomax's goal gave the visitors an 18-13 lead.
In the 67th minute, former Knights lower-grade centre Brayden Wiliame scored, increasing the Dragons' lead to 22-13.
There was controversy in the 75th minute, after Knights winger Hymel Hunt appeared to have scored in the corner, only to be denied by a dubious forward-pass ruling.
It was the Knights' second consecutive defeat at home this season, and the Dragons' 18th win from 23 games in Newcastle.