Enjoyment key to Knights rise

IT would have been easy for Knights coach Wayne Bennett to react to the team’s mid-season five-game losing streak by cancelling the players’ week off and flogging them at training.

The last of those five losses was inflicted by the Raiders at Hunter Stadium on June 9, and the players were booed off the field by their own fans after a 32-16 defeat.

The Knights had a bye after that game and a 16-day break before their next assignment, against a Tigers team who had strung seven wins together.

Bennett allowed the players to go their separate ways for a week to recharge.

When they clocked back on a week before the Wests Tigers match, they had a spring in their step and responded with four wins from their past five games.

Newcastle’s past two victories have been against 2011 grand finalists Manly and the Warriors in successive weeks, and tomorrow they will chase their first winning hat-trick in a year against the team who inadvertently kick-started their resurgence.

The Knights trailed the Warriors 18-0 after 16 minutes at Mt Smart Stadium last Saturday but rallied to win 24-19 to join the Warriors, Raiders, Titans and Dragons on 20 points – one win adrift of the eighth-placed Tigers.

‘‘We’ve just got back to having fun at training, and if you turn up here every day, you see a lot of smiles on the blokes’ faces and we’re just enjoying our footy,’’ playmaker Jarrod Mullen said in the lead-up to Newcastle’s game against the Raiders at Canberra Stadium tomorrow.

‘‘Even though we were against the ropes at the weekend, we just got back to playing simple and just enjoying ourselves and I think it showed out there.

‘‘It was getting to be a bit of a grind there at one stage, but we’re playing a lot more games at training and it’s helped in the games.’’

Mullen said it was Bennett’s idea to lighten the load at training and the players – having adapted to his methods and mindset – embraced the change in mood.

‘‘We were probably treading on eggshells and didn’t really know how to take him early on, but now everyone knows what the go is with the team and what we’ve got to do every week and it’s been working,’’ Mullen said of the seven-time premiership-winning mentor.

‘‘He’s always been mellow. He just puts a lot of ownership on the players.

‘‘He gives us a bit of leniency towards a lot of stuff, and plenty of rest and stuff like that, but when it’s time to train it’s time to dig in and that’s what we’ve been doing.’’

Mullen said the April arrival of Willie Mason, whose larger-than-life personality and infectious sense of humour, helped break the ice.

‘‘He’s been tremendous, not only on the field but off the field for us,’’ Mullen said.

‘‘He’s always having a joke with the boys, and I think he’s really brought our pack together.’’

After struggling to compete in most games in the first two-thirds of the season, Mullen said Newcastle’s improved ball control was another key to their recent success.

According to NRL Stats, their completion rates in their past four wins were 78per cent (Warriors), 81per cent (Sea Eagles), 83per cent (Eels) and 89per cent (Tigers).

‘‘At the point there where we lost four or five in a row, we were dropping the ball eight or nine times inside our 50, and if you keep doing that against any side, they’re going to put points and pressure on you,’’ Mullen said.

‘‘There’s no secret to it. You complete your sets and put pressure on the opposition, you take the pressure off you.

‘‘It’s just a change in attitude. We’re treating that ball like gold. We’re holding the ball, getting to our kick and putting the pressure on the opposition. Nothing’s changed too much, just the mentality of the team.’’

Bennett named an 18-man squad but is expected to retain the same 17 he used against the Warriors, meaning back-rower Marvin Filipo would be omitted.

Former Knights prop Dane Tilse was not named for Canberra but could be included tomorrow.

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