Souths swap places with Knights on Struggle Street

THE last time these teams met the stakes were slightly higher.

That was on September 2 last year, when South Sydney arrived in Newcastle for the final round of the season knowing the winners would qualify for the play-offs, the losers could crack their first stubbies and join the rest of the also-rans on Mad Monday.

Cheered on by a delirious Turton Road crowd of 30,729, the Knights exploded out of the blocks, led 30-6 at half-time and eventually coasted to a 40-24 victory that secured their passage into the post-season.

That Newcastle were eliminated a week later by minor premiers Melbourne mattered little.

Most Knights fans assumed, after all, that last season was merely the entree.

It was in 2012 that Nathan Tinkler’s millions, Wayne Bennett’s tactical expertise and a handful of big-name imports would transform Newcastle from fringe finalists into genuine title contenders.

This was supposed to be year one of the dynasty.

Bring on the super club.

It all sounded good in theory, anyway.

Instead, after yesterday’s 34-14 loss to Souths at ANZ Stadium, we find the Knights occupying a lowly 13th rung on the NRL ladder after just six wins from their first 16 games.

With eight rounds to play, they are two wins adrift of the top nine teams.

Given that they still have to travel to Auckland, Brookvale, Canberra and Townsville, where pickings have traditionally been slim, Bennett’s troops need a miracle.

It’s hard to imagine they have one in them.

Yesterday’s performance put their back-to-back wins against Wests Tigers and Parramatta in context.

It was one-way traffic from the outset.

As Bennett said yesterday, Souths were simply ‘‘too big and too strong for us, too good’’.

That usually is the case when a top-four team encounter opponents who are merely making up the numbers.

And the question that needs to be asked is how, after their do-or-die showdown last September, have Souths kicked on so commandingly while the Knights have not only failed to improve, but regressed alarmingly?

Like the Knights, Souths changed coaches at the end of their last campaign.

Out went John Lang. In came Michael Maguire, who had steered Wigan to a Super League grand final but an unknown quantity in the NRL.

The Rabbitohs also lost halfback Chris Sandow to Parramatta, and there were concerns they may not be able to replace their No.1 playmaker.

Maguire’s only notable signing was former Test centre Matt King, but with basically the same roster as last season, he has converted an inconsistent, enigmatic mob into a team capable of doing some damage at the business end of the season.

‘‘South Sydney, on today’s performance, looked like one of the top teams in the competition,’’ Bennett noted.

‘‘They played as well as anyone else has against us all season.’’

The Bunnies, including a number of the same players, had scarcely struck a blow in the the previous five years. They last featured in the finals in 2007.

Somehow Maguire has managed to turn them around and point them in the right direction.

They are playing for the coach, just as the Knights did last season under Rick Stone.

Ironically, Souths chased Bennett hard last year but were outbid by Tinkler, and therefore Maguire clinched the job almost by default.

With each passing week, Souths are building momentum.

‘‘I’ve got a good senior crew and the young guys are continually learning each week, and I think we’re going to grow as a group,’’ Maguire said.

‘‘I’ve said it many times about this team, there’s a lot more in front of us to improve on as a team ... I think there’s a really strong belief in the team at the moment and a lot of confidence growing.’’

If big guns Sam Burgess, Greg Inglis and Dave Taylor can stay healthy, good luck to whoever meet Souths in the weeks ahead.

And as for the issue of replacing Sandow, mark Adam Reynolds as the NRL’s rookie of the year.

Last season, when the teams shook hands at full-time, the Rabbitohs would have given anything to trade places.

Now Souths are where the Knights want to be. Who knows how long it will take them to get there.

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