The Newcastle Knights have stormed into NRL finals contention, reaching a season-high sixth on the ladder after a 30-28 win over the Dolphins in Perth.
Playing as the first leg of the double header, the NRL’s newest side gave them a scare but the Knights came from behind to pull off a fifth straight win and continue to rocket up the NRL ladder.
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In round 17, the Knights were languishing in 14th with just 15 points for the season and looking likely to be an also-ran.
Having lost three straight games at the time to the Broncos, Roosters and Panthers — although all by less than 10 points — the Knights season appeared to be slipping away.
But since a 66-0 win over the Bulldogs in round 18, followed by a bye, victories over the Tigers, Storm, Raiders and now Dolphins have the Knights flying high in sixth, although they will finish the round seventh.
And with the next three games at home against the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Sharks, before finishing the season on the road against the Dragons, there is a chance the Knights could earn themselves a home semi-final, if not put pressure on the Storm to hang onto its spot in the top four.
Having not been in the top eight since round six, it’s an exceptional turnaround for Newcastle but coach Adam O’Brien said post-match the team had been “consistent with being consistent” all season.
“They’ve done a hell of a job the playing group and I think, to be fair, all year,” O’Brien said.
“I know the last month has been exceptional but I do believe they can be proud of their whole season. We’ve been in every game bar one and every week they’ve been in with a fighting chance.
“But you don’t win those ones tonight if you haven’t got that foundation from earlier in the year.”
Unsurprisingly, the catalyst for the rise up the ladder has been the return to form of Kalyn Ponga.
The fullback missed many of the early rounds this year with a horror concussion and he once again stamped his authority on the Dolphins.
Ponga ran 179m, made two line breaks, laid on a line break assist and two try assists in another brilliant performance.
“It’s been an unbelievable performance in the last 10 minutes by Ponga and they have really split them open,” Steve Roach said on Fox League after Ponga set up what proved the matchwinning try.
“Ponga has been absolutely outstanding. Isn’t it amazing when you need your best players to come to the fore.”
Warren Smith added: “He’s helped his team come back in the second half from a fair way back.”
Incredibly, the latest result has come as there have reportedly been conversations with other coaches.
Club powerbrokers reportedly met with former Titans coach Justin Holbrook according to the Sydney Morning Herald but it was unclear if it was to replace O’Brien or discuss a role as an assistant — Holbrook has since signed with the Roosters.
Speaking on Big Sports Breakfast on Monday, News Corp’s Phil Rothfield said Knights powerbrokers had spoken to “Michael Maguire, Paul McGregor, Des Hasler, John Morris and now Holbrook” over a five or six week period.
“I find this totally out of order what the Knights are doing. O’Brien has been there four years, he made the finals the first two years,” Rothfield said at the time.
“The football they are playing right now would suggest they aren’t just banging the door down, they are a serious contender and I find it extraordinary that they are looking elsewhere.
“These sort of things are going to destabilise the playing roster, Kalyn Ponga is fully supportive (of Adam O’Brien) and so are the rest of the players, he is getting the results.”
But as the Knights continue to shoot up the ladder with a bullet, it’s surely getting more and more unlikely by the match that O’Brien will be going anywhere.