KNIGHTS coach Rick Stone slammed his side for a substandard performance in their 31-18 loss to the under-strength Broncos at Hunter Stadium on Monday night.
Newcastle led 18-6 just before half-time but surrendered tries to Broncos centre Jack Reed one minute either side of the break and were unable to regain momentum against a Brisbane side missing Queensland Origin representatives Darius Boyd, Justin Hodges, Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday, Josh McGuire and Matt Gillett.
Any progress the Knights thought they made with their 22-12 victory over Wests Tigers eight days earlier was quickly negated as they capitulated in the second half and slumped to their sixth loss from seven games, leaving them in 12th position on 10 points ahead of a tough trip to Auckland next Sunday to face the Warriors (12 points).
The Broncos recovered from their 12-point deficit to post 25 unanswered points and win pulling away to move to 16 points and second position on for-and-against difference behind Melbourne.
The Knights were not without their personnel issues either, and those were exacerbated when captain Kurt Gidley (concussion) did not return for the second half, but their listless, lacklustre performance after establishing a decent lead left a lot to be desired.
Already without injured pivot Jarrod Mullen (toe) and back-rowers Beau Scott (Origin), Jeremy Smith (sternum) and Robbie Rochow (back), Newcastle lost back-rower Joseph Tapine to a back injury suffered in the warm-up. That earned Chris Houston a late promotion to the run-on side and veteran Clint Newton a call-up to the bench.
"There's no doubt we've gone another step backwards this week, and we've got a decent challenge going to New Zealand next week," Stone said.
"First things first is get our injuries sorted out, see who's fit and healthy, then regroup ourselves and get a side over to New Zealand to compete."
Reed's second try came after Broncos fullback Jordan Kahu fielded a short kick-off at the start of the second half and broke a tackle.
Newcastle's defence never recovered on that play, or for the rest of the game.
"We probably gifted the start to them with the momentum and they took advantage of it, and pretty much kept the foot on the throat the rest of the half," Stone said.
"We didn't really get a lot of chances down the opposition's end after the start of the second half - not a good kick, missed tackle off the kick-off and they go 100 metres and score a try . . .
"In the NRL, you've got to compete hard but you've got to concentrate and you've got to execute, and our concentration coming out of half-time wasn't to NRL standard."
Broncos five-eighth Anthony Milford ran amok on Brisbane's left edge, terrorising Newcastle's right-edge defenders Aku Uate and Sione Mata'utia.
Milford scored Brisbane's first try in the fourth minute, threw the final pass for Reed's second try in the 41st, and he and Reed combined for giant winger Corey Oates to crash through Dane Gagai and score in the 61st.
"I think we tried to solve things a little bit on our own tonight rather than together, on the edges - on both edges, but more so definitely on the right," Stone said.
"Aku's positioning was a little bit untidy a few times and the Broncos took advantage of that. That's not NRL-standard defence on the edge, for us, and I think those pair know that.
"Obviously not having Kurt there in the second half didn't help either. It was tough, and we had some excuses, but Sione and Aku need to do better there."
Stone hoped Gidley would be cleared to play against the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday.
Former Knights coach Wayne Bennett enjoyed a triumphant return to Hunter Stadium but played down the significant of the occasion, instead concentrating on the polished performance by his under-manned squad.
Bennett said Reed's try just before half-time gave them hope and his second try just after half-time gave them belief "and our second half was just about perfect".
"They obviously had some problems down their right-edge defence and our players, to their credit, exploited it," Bennett said.
Stand-in Brisbane skipper Andrew McCullough said the Broncos were determined to maintain the club's high standards in the absence of their Origin stars, several of whom text-messaged their congratulations to Bennett shortly after full-time.
"We had nine players missing here tonight," Bennett said.
"I've been in this situation a lot of times with the Broncos and you learn a lot of things on the journey.
"We've got a club, we haven't just got a team, and that's what was proven here tonight.
"We'll need these boys at other stages this year so it gives everybody confidence about what we're doing and how the system's working for us.
"I've won here before as a coach. I was just pleased we played well. That's what I wanted to come here tonight.
"It was nothing personal for me about tonight, it was just about us turning up here and keeping the momentum that we've played so well for 11 weeks in the comp now.
"I just don't want to lose that, and it was important here not to do that."
● The Broncos bucked the Knights 52-12 in the National Youth Cup (under-20s) game.