WITH three minutes to go, South Sydney coach Michael Maguire sent down an urgent warning to his players: “We need to make sure we’re right on our game here, because they fight for 80 minutes.’’
That one exchange probably outlines how far the Newcastle Knights have come in the space of 12 months.
In round two last year, Souths hammered the Knights 48-6 and barely broke sweat. Maguire’s team still won at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday – their eighth consecutive success against Newcastle – but the 24-18 scoreline was the closest between the two sides since 2011.
“I thought Newcastle fought right to the death,’’ Maguire said.
Newcastle, back-to-back wooden spooners in 2015 and 2016, won only one game last season and endured some horrendous beatings.
But after a season-opening 26-22 loss to the Warriors, a 34-26 win against Gold Coast and Saturday’s loss to the Rabbitohs, they have taken every game so far this year down to the wire.
“They’re a really fighting team,’’ Maguire said.
“You can see that, by the way they’ve played over the last three rounds. They’re a team that compete on every single play … they’re going to trouble a lot of teams throughout the season.’’
Knights coach Nathan Brown had mixed emotions about his team’s performance.
While he was pleased with the effort, he was disappointed that Newcastle allowed a 12-10 half-time lead to slip with an error-riddled opening to the second stanza.
“The past three or four years … what South Sydney have done do us as a club, whether Wayne [Bennett] was here, or [Rick Stone] or myself, they’ve just abolutely beaten the tripe out of us and scored a mile of points,’’ Brown said.
“Today, they beat us because they were just a little bit more professional ... I think South Sydney would be saying, jeez, these boys are moving forward, but they'd also be saying they make it tough for themselves.''
Newcastle’s cause was not helped when they lost a crucial scrum against the feed late in the second half, and skipper Trent Hodkinson was then sin-binned, apparently after telling referee Dave Munro: “You’ve cost us the game.”
Brown said Hodkinson was “usually a very calm, respectful guy”. But he had no complaints with the referee’s decision.
"If Trent spoke to the referee in the wrong manner, I've got no issue with what happened ... if he has said the wrong thing, well he got what should happen,'' he said.