IT’S the game that could determine whether or not the Newcastle Knights join the biggest losers in rugby league history.
On Sunday at McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle host Wests Tigers in what many – including the NRL’s marketing-and-promotion department – have labelled “the battle for the wooden spoon”.
Before round 17 kicked off, both teams were equal last, four points adrift of their nearest rivals.
But the Tigers have an extra victory to their name and a bye in hand, so if they beat the Knights there would effectively be a two-win gap between the sides, with nine games to play.
After finishing last in 2015 and 2016, the Knights are desperate to avoid becoming only the fifth club since the 13-man code kicked off in 1908 to rack up a hat-trick of spoons. Only Parramatta (1956-61), University (1929-31 and 1934-37), Newtown (1976-78) and Gold Coast (1991-93) have spent so long in the cellar.
The Knights have no intention of joining them, which makes Sunday’s showdown a must-win affair.
“It’s like our State of Origin. It’s our grand final,’’ Knights fullback Nathan Ross declared. “We have to win this weekend. It’s a big game.”
Knights coach Nathan Brown said the dog-eat-dog circumstances would ensure both teams were highly motivated.
“We’ve picked up the last two spoons and the Tigers have never had one, so I’m sure they’re talking about not wanting to get that, as well,’’ Brown said. “So in terms if the importance of it, it’s very important for us to do well.’’
The Knights have won only three of 38 games since the start of last year but will be $1.67 favourites in this match.
Brown was confident that “some wins will come” between now and season’s end if his players keep believing.
“We’ve lost so many games by such a fine margin, when we’ve put ourselves in a decent position,’’ he said.
“If we can keep doing that, a bit of luck will come our way and we’ll improve a bit in some areas as well.
“This time last year, we just couldn’t physically compete at all, where at the moment we can.’’
He said Newcastle’s young tyros “were happy just to play first grade’’ last year, but were developing a will to win.
“I got the feeling at the start of this year, when they were competing really well, they thought that was good, to compete,’’ he said.
“Whereas now, they don’t feel competing is good enough any more.
“That’s probably the steps the club has taken, or they’ve taken as a group, which is good.
“They no longer now feel satisfied with competing. They actually want to win, and I think that will help us push forward.”