THE Newcastle Knights will spend their fourth consecutive season as finals spectators and are $1.08 favourites to collect a third straight wooden spoon.
But over the last four rounds of 2017, they are looking forward to testing themselves against four genuine play-off contenders, starting with Parramatta at ANZ Stadium on Friday night.
After the Eels, Newcastle face runaway leaders Melbourne at home, desperate Canberra in the national capital and premiers Cronulla (home) in their season finale.
It is perhaps the toughest draw any team will face over the next month and a great challenge for the Knights after back-to-back wins against St George Illawarra and the Warriors.
“It’s definitely a hard run,’’ Knights co-captain Sione Mata’utia said.
“There’s some good teams and we’ve definitely spoken about finishing on a high this season.
“Although the first half of the season wasn’t too good, it’s in the past and we can change this next month of footy.
“It’s going to be a good challenge. Everyone’s pretty excited about it.’’
Mata’utia said every win would give the Knights confidence “to take into the pre-season”.
In-form five-eighth Brock Lamb said Newcastle were “trying to build for the future” and were ignoring their loser-takes-all battle with Wests Tigers for the wooden spoon.
The Tigers are only two points ahead, although appear to have an easier run in than Newcastle.
“We don’t think about that too much,’’ Lamb said.
“We’re just trying to get the wins for ourselves and our fans, that’s the main thing. We’re just training as hard as we can and if we can finish the year off strong, it will be important for us next year.’’
Parramatta are taking no chances with fullback Bevan French as they home in on their first top-four finish in 12 years.
After French sat on the sidelines with a hamstring injury during the second half of last week's win over Canterbury, Eels coach Arthur rated him a doubtful starter.
"He'll train today but it's unlikely, we don't want to take a risk with him," Arthur said of French, who has scored a try in each of Parramatta’s past six games.
Former Knights lower-grader Will Smith and ex-Brisbane and Gold Coast speedster Josh Hoffman have been named on an extended bench. Onewill come into the side should French be ruled out.
The Eels are guaranteed to move into the top four if they beat Newcastle.
With Cronulla and Brisbane facing off on Friday night, two points will lift the Eels to fourth.
Parramatta have not featured in the finals since 2009 and last qualified in the top four when they finished minor premiers under coach Brian Smith in 2005.
"It's exciting, you can sense the excitement around Parramatta, you can sense the excitement in the playing group," Arthur said. "You work all year to try and play finals football. We're no different from any other club.”