WAYNE Bennett will have to create history to steer his struggling Newcastle Knights into this year’s NRL finals.
As the Knights prepare for Sunday’s daunting showdown with Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium – the halfway point in their season – they are 11th on the competition points table after four wins and seven losses.
No Newcastle team since the club’s foundation in 1988 has recovered from such a tardy start to reach the play-offs.
Of the 12 campaigns in which the Knights have featured in the finals, their worst placing at the corresponding point in the season was last year, when they had won five of their first 11 games.
They regrouped to win seven of their remaining 13 matches to qualify eighth, only to be eliminated at the first hurdle by minor premiers Melbourne.
Twelve months on, the Knights are in an even more tenuous position.
The ladder indicates they are two points adrift of the top eight, but disregarding the bye, the stark reality for Newcastle is that there are already nine teams who are two clear wins ahead of them.
If they are beaten by Brisbane – who were posted as prohibitive $1.20 favourites by TAB Sportsbet yesterday – and other results go against them, the Knights could find themselves three wins off the pace with just 12 games to play.
Veteran skipper Danny Buderus said yesterday ‘‘it’s not all doom and gloom’’ but admitted his teammates were lacking self-belief.
He said their only focus was the next game, rather than the business end of the season.
‘‘For us as a group, we just want to play well,’’ he said.
‘‘I know it’s an old cliche, but we’re not thinking about climbing up the table, we’re not thinking about semis, we’re not thinking about anything but competing for a good part of the majority of the game, and playing as good as we can as a group.’’
Buderus was confident there was still time for Newcastle to salvage something from a much-anticipated season.
‘‘Once you get on a roll, and the momentum is with you, it can be pretty powerful,’’ he said.
‘‘At the moment, it’s not with us ... we’re back working hard, and like I said, with a few of these one per-centers, a few of these little different things that can pick up the intensity in our game, we can make a bit of a run for it.
‘‘But right at the moment, we’re not where we want to be as a group and we’ve just got to change it.’’
If Newcastle’s situation appears bleak, at least Bennett – as he said after Saturday’s loss to Gold Coast – has ‘‘been here before’’.
In 1999, when he was at Brisbane, the master coach endured an even more bewildering start to the season when the reigning premiers lost eight of their first 11 games, winning two and drawing one.
The Broncos then won 11 and drew one of their remaining 13 games to finish eighth.
For Newcastle to have any hope of staging a similar resurrection, history suggests they will need to increase their attacking output.
Newcastle have scored 168 points this season, the fewest by any team, at an average of 15.27 per appearance.
Were they to continue scoring at the same rate, they would finish the season with roughly 370 points.
Yet since the NRL was formed in 1988, the lowest season tally from any team in reaching the finals was South Sydney’s 408 points (average 17 per game) in finishing seventh in 2007.
‘‘Attacking wise, we’re not throwing many options at teams and really we’re just hanging in,’’ Buderus said.
‘‘But if you’re not keen to be a footballer at three o’clock at Suncorp on Sunday, then you’re in the wrong profession.’’
Buderus said ‘‘without a doubt’’ the hype surrounding Newcastle before a ball was kicked this season was premature and asked fans to stay patient.
‘‘It’s a work in progress,’’ he said. ‘‘Wayne didn’t sign for 12 months. He signed for four years ... all us as players, we’ve got to support him.
‘‘He’s been great. He’s given us every opportunity to succeed. There’s no excuses.
‘‘We’ve said that since the start of the year.’’