Newcastle coach Nathan Brown believes the Knights benefited more from their Magic Round dogfight with Canterbury last Saturday than the walk in the park it looked like being at half-time.
The Knights led 16-0 after 40 minutes and threatened to blow the Bulldogs away in the second half but a Reimis Smith intercept try in the 49th minute swung momentum Canterbury’s way, then Will Hopate’s converted try seven minutes later cut the deficit to six points.
It took some gritty goal-line defence and a late Kalyn Ponga try to secure a 22-10 victory – Newcastle’s third straight – and Brown hopes that steels them for a daunting stretch of games against the NRL’s heavyweights in the next six weeks.
The wounded Dragons, Newcastle’s bogey side for as long as most Knights fans care to remember, are their next opponent at Mudgee next Sunday, before games against the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Storm and Broncos.
“I think that was great for us, for the team and where we’ve been,” Brown said on Monday.
“Our last two results [against the Eels and Warriors], in the last 10 minutes we were pretty comfortable and had those results tied up.
“The other day, obviously to get the result we had to keep defending our goal-line so to do that and turn them away consistently should give the guys a lot of confidence.”
Last on the ladder before upsetting Parramatta 28-14 a fortnight ago, the resurgent Knights are poised to climb into the top eight if they beat St George Illawarra on Sunday.
Though the Dragons have lost their past three games, they pipped the Knights 13-12 in extra time early last month and Brown rates their pack among the biggest and best in the NRL.
Brown stressed every game provided its own challenges, and the compressed points table reflected how close the competition was, but the Knights were keen to test themselves against the best in the next month.
“They’re tough games, no doubt, and they’re all the top four from last year … or near enough to the top four from last year, so it will be a really good test for us,” he said.
“The last three weeks have been great for us to get some results in different fashion, and we’ve won them all in different ways under different sorts of pressure.
“This week is a real big one, then we’ve got the Roosters, who are in fine form, into a bye.
“So the next two games for us, like all clubs that have got a bye, you want to go into a bye winning games and playing well. Then Origin will come and hopefully, if we’re playing well enough we’ll lose some players to Origin … and that presents a different challenge once again.”
Brown said five-eighth Connor Watson and winger Edrick Lee, who both suffered foot injuries against the Bulldogs, were in doubt for the Dragons game but would not rule them out.
Scans revealed Watson had ruptured his plantar fascia and Lee had the same injury but was still awaiting results of scans to determine the severity. Brown expected to know more on Tuesday but is prepared to include them in his 21-man squad if they are a realistic chance of playing.
“They’re both possibilities. Whether they’re probable or possible, I don’t know, but they’re certainly not ruled out at this stage,” he said.
“If they do miss, we’d be disappointed if we do miss them, but compared to what went on up there at the weekend, some clubs have got some real horrible injuries.”
If Watson and Lee do not recover in time, utility Kurt Mann is a contender to replace either player.
Sione Mata’utia, who made way for Jesse Ramien’s return last Saturday, could play centre and Hymel Hunt could push out to the wing to replace Lee if necessary.
Centre Tautau Moga is another candidate if a back-line reshuffle is required, but he has missed Newcastle’s past two Canterbury Cup NSW games because of a minor knee injury not related to the fourth reconstruction he underwent last year.