Knights beat Warriors to keep NRL finals hopes alive

THE Warriors need a miracle to resurrect their spluttering season after they squandered an 18-point lead to succumb to the Newcastle Knights 24-19 in a perplexing display at Mt Smart Stadium last night.

With seven games left in the regular season before last night's contest, and requiring at least four wins to make the play-offs, the Warriors looked like a team that could challenge for the title early on.

Despite losing both star winger Manu Vatuvei and forward Steve Rapira to hamstring injuries before kick-off, the hosts started in inspired fashion, racing out to an 18-0 lead inside 16 minutes thanks to some Feleti Mateo brilliance.

But instead of landing the killer punch, they proceeded to inexplicably clock off and blow it, leaving their season on life support.

Still, by the midway point of the second half, the Warriors clung to a one-point lead and looked as if they were going to get out of jail.

But it was not to be and when Knights centre Dane Gagai ran the length of the field to score after 62 minutes, giving his side the lead for the first time, the writing was on the wall.

And while the Warriors can conceivably still make the top eight if they suddenly rediscover their mojo, if last night's capitulation is anything to go by, they would not last long in the post-season anyway.

"Every lost opportunity to get two points makes it harder," coach Brian McClennan said. "We are travelling to Perth next week to play Manly and that was a high-quality match they played on Friday night against the Bulldogs. We are going over there and we have got our backs against the wall a bit now."

The task that confronts the Warriors was described by halfback Shaun Johnson last night as "massive". Massive, but not impossible. "We've really got to work hard, recover well and focus on getting over to Perth and doing the job there," he said. "There's nothing wrong with our belief or anything like that.

''We've got all the confidence in the world about what we've got going on over here. Tonight was a setback, but we've just got to learn a valuable lesson and move on."

In a mixed first-half performance, the Warriors started strongly with Nathan Friend, Johnson and Ben Matulino all crossing after running on to passes from Mateo.

With the game seemingly in the bag, the hosts went to sleep and the Knights finally made them pay for it just over 10 minutes before half-time when Akuila Uate dotted down in the corner.

James Maloney responded with a field goal to give his side some breathing room only for Jacob Lillyman to drop the ball in the dying seconds, paving the way in the ensuing set for Kevin Naiqama to score out wide.

Having watched their 18-point lead clawed back to seven by the break, the Warriors needed a strong start to the second half to put the Knights on the canvas.

But instead they looked dead on their feet and, when Timana Tahu and Gagai both scored tries, it was game over.

NEWCASTLE 24 (D Gagai K Naiqama T Tahu A Uate tries T Roberts 4 goals) bt WARRIORS 19 (N Friend S Johnson B Matulino tries J Maloney 3 goals J Maloney field goal) at Mt Smart Stadium. Referee: Gerard Sutton, Adam Devcich.

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