Even after their 38-4 victory over Gold Coast last Saturday kept Newcastle’s season on life support, Knights utility Connor Watson was resigned to missing out on the finals.
That was confirmed about 24 hours later when Wests Tigers routed the Dragons 42-14 to pull the plug on Newcastle’s 2019 campaign. Even if the Knights beat fellow under-achievers Penrith on Sunday, they can finish no higher than ninth.
“We know what we’re capable of and we should be a top-eight side … but it’s our fault,” Watson said on Monday.
“We got ourselves into that hole, so we’re the ones to blame there, but we can’t be relying on other teams to get us in the finals.”
Prop Daniel Saifiti, who has now finished in the bottom half of the ladder in all four of his NRL seasons at Newcastle, acknowledged that their end-of-season collapse took some of the gloss of a year in which he made his Origin debut and helped NSW win a second straight series.
“When you leave it up to chance, sometimes it’s not going to go your own way and it didn’t for us unfortunately,” Saifiti said on Monday.
“But at the end of the day, if you have to rely on other results, it means you didn’t do enough yourself, so it says a lot about us, I reckon.”
Saifiti lamented their six home losses by a total of 23 points, or an average of 3.8 points a game.
“If we had have jagged three of them or so, we’re in the semis and we’re laughing, but it’s more of a ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ type thing at the moment,” Saifiti said.
“I ticked a lot of boxes this year – some I didn’t think would happen but they did, and I was very grateful for that – but to finish the way we did, and to have a sort of form slump personally after Origin, it’s easy to talk about now, but it’s something I can learn from in the future.
“I think it makes it more disappointing in that we were in the top four after round 13 or 14, we’d won seven out of eight and were going good, but for me personally, it’s hard to explain …
“As a group, we need to be mentally tougher when the game’s in the balance … It’s tough to take with the talent we have and the roster we have … and we’ll look back on it at the end of the year as a chance missed.”
The Knights have lost eight games by eight points or less this season, rekindling memories for Watson of his first season with the Roosters.
That was 2016 when they finished second-last, ahead of only Newcastle, but recovered to be second at the end of the 2017 regular season before being eliminated one game before the grand final.
“We kept losing all these close games, then the next year we won the first couple of close games and it really sets up your year,” Watson said.
“The big thing for us next year, we have to come out on top in these close games because they’re the ones that make or break your season.
“If you lose too many of them, then you sit where we are … but if you can start to win those games, I think we finished second in the minor premiership that year, so they help you to cement your place as a good football side.
“So for us, it’s probably about becoming more resilient as a team, so we’ve got a big task ahead of us … but we’re definitely capable of doing it. It’s just working hard and finding that toughness.”
Watson expected Newcastle’s inexperienced players to learn from the mistakes they made and use their disappointment to spur them on to greater things under a new coach.
“It’s not an excuse but we’ve still got a really young side here, and a lot of young guys … so the more hardened and more experienced at first grade everyone becomes, I think you start to get better at staying in tight games and being able to close them out,” he said.
“That’s where we need to go and that’s what we need to do, and hopefully whoever our new coach is sees it the same way and helps us do that.
“It’s been frustrating, especially the last eight to 10 weeks where we just fell away. “We were really in there but we let it get away from us, which has been really disappointing, so that’s a driving factor for next year.
“Everyone wants to win an NRL premiership – that’s what everyone dreams of as a kid – and no-one’s goals have changed. I think the setbacks from this year will hopefully make us a bit hungrier and next year we’ll come through, win those close games, and make the finals.”