A CONTROVERSIAL try by Wests Tigers winger Malakai Watene Zelezniak on Sunday has left the Newcastle Knights in the box seat to collect their third consecutive wooden spoon.
Newcastle appeared to have regained control of their own destiny after Friday’s inspiring 29-10 win against Parramatta, which lifted them level with the Tigers on five wins apiece, but ahead on for-and-against statistics.
At half-time in the Tigers’ clash with Manly at Leichhardt, Knights fans were entitled to be optimistic with the Sea Eagles leading 20-6.
But the Tigers mounted a stirring comeback, culminating in a 79th-minute try by Watene Zelezniak that appeared to feature an obstruction and a forward pass in the lead-up, to win 30-26.
That left Newcastle outright last on the ladder by two points, with three games left against minor premiers Melbourne (home), Canberra (away) and champions (Cronulla) home.
The Knights will need at least one win from their remaining games or they will finish last, as they did in 2015 and 2016.
As well as the Tigers, they are still a mathematical chance of catching struggling Canterbury, Gold Coast and the Warriors, who have all won two more games than Newcastle.
That the Knights have even a glimmer of hope is remarkable, given that after their 33-12 loss to the Tigers in round 17 they were two wins adrift of second last with eight games to play.
They then proceeded to lose to Canterbury (20-18), Brisbane (34-22) and the Roosters (28-4), at which point they were paying $1.05 with TAB to run last.
But after successive wins against St George Illawarra, the Warriors and Parramatta, they have shown resilience and spirit at a stage in the season when other teams appear to have lost interest.
“Obviously we don’t want the wooden spoon,” Knights co-captain Jamie Buhrer said after Friday’s win.
“I don’t think any team ever would … we’ve got three games to go against some pretty tough opposition: last year’s premiers, the runner-up and obviously Canberra is fighting to make the eight.
“If we can emerge out of that without the wooden spoon, I tell you what, we’ll have deserved it.”
Asked if he was confident Newcastle could take their form into Saturday’s blockbuster clash with the Storm, Buhrer pointed to the “incremental improvement” his young teammates had made in the past three weeks.
I’m confident in this group ... we’re going to give it everything we’ve got, of course,’’ he said.
“It doesn’t get any better than playing Melbourne. We’re looking forward to it.”