Knights utility Connor Watson has challenged his team-mates to toughen up, physically and mentally, if they want to repair their self-inflicted damage and salvage their season.
There was no sugar-coating, no sweet talk and no spin when Watson was asked about the predicament the Knights faced heading into their game against Parramatta at BankWest Stadium on Saturday.
After losing five straight and six of their past seven, Newcastle have slipped from the fringe of the top four to 11th and Watson concedes their finals flame will be extinguished if they lose to the Eels.
“Yeah, definitely. It is now or never,” Watson said on Tuesday.
“We lose and we’re probably out of the race for the finals and it’s really frustrating that we’ve put ourselves in this position, but they’re the cards we’ve dealt to ourselves … so all we can do now is win.
“I think we’ve lost our edge a bit, our steeliness, especially when games get hard but that’s NRL football. It gets hard in the middle of games, and when it’s got hard for us, probably since eight weeks ago, we’ve crumbled a bit against teams, which is not what we’ve built this team on.
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“Especially our defence, that was our number-one focus coming into the year, and for the first 16 rounds I think we did a really good job of it. But the last five to six weeks of football, when it’s got tough, we’ve just crumbled and really let ourselves down there.
“I think everyone’s had a bit of a think and a long hard look at themselves and hopefully it changes this weekend.”
Watson had an ally in captain Mitchell Pearce, who along with the coaching staff and senior players is trying to generate confidence and a positive atmosphere despite their string of losses.
“That’s reality. It’s harsh to think like that, and the last month hasn’t been ideal, that’s for sure, but I’m pretty sure Connor’s spot on there,” Pearce said.
“… It’s not as if you’re not trying, or trying to find an answer, but it’s been happening in sport for a long time – people go in lows, it’s not ideal and we’re not happy about it – but we’ve got to somehow create a win this week, simple as that.
“You’ve just got to go back to what works and keep trusting it. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, so we’ll be confident going in to Parramatta.”
Under fire from punters and pundits alike, Watson said the players had been harder on themselves than anyone, and were not giving up on their goal of reaching the finals for the first time since 2013.
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Newcastle trailed the Roosters 6-4 and Sea Eagles 8-6 at half-time of those away games in the past three weeks, only to be blown away 48-10 and 30-6 respectively. In between those games, they held an early 12-0 lead against Wests Tigers in Newcastle a fortnight ago but relaxed and lost 28-26.
“I think we’re accountable for it. We’re all a part of it,” Watson said, when asked about a perceived lack of desire or accountability.
“Every loss that has been, especially when it blows out to 30 points, it’s a team loss. It’s not down to any individual players, it’s a collective group of players not really trying hard enough or not being tough enough or not hanging in there enough.
“When it gets tough, we’ve got to keep going through it. We’ve done it before – we’ve been there before and done it – and that’s why it’s so frustrating at the moment.”
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Newcastle wrestled with the same demons when they lost five in a row earlier in the year, and responded with six straight wins – a streak that started with a 28-14 victory over the Eels.
“This is why you play football, to play finals and grand finals, and we’ve still got an opportunity to make the finals and we should be there,” Watson said.
“We know what we’re capable of, so it’s about everyone front-loading their energy and attacking with our defence and we know we can do it.
“We’ve won games by doing that this year, and that’s the blueprint for us.”
Utility Kurt Mann, who is expected to recover from a minor knee injury to take his place on the wing, navigated similar terrain with St George Illawarra last year.
Mann was a member of the Dragons team that won three of their last four to secure a finals berth that looked like slipping from their grasp during a late streak of five losses from six games.
“It’s always desperate when you’re playing NRL, and you’re heading towards the back end of the season. I think every team’s going to be desperate,” Mann told reporters on Tuesday.
“I’ve been in teams in a similar sort of position, especially last year with the Dragons. We had a similar sort of thing happen to us and we came good towards the end, and I’m completely confident with this team, especially the team we’ve got here, that we can do the exact same.”