Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown was again left to ponder what might have been had injuries not played such a significant role as his side ended its season with a disappointing 24-14 loss to St George Illawarra.
The struggling Dragons were there for the taking in the final round clash on Saturday at McDonald Jones Stadium.
The Knights just weren’t up to it.
Despite a glut of possession and field position, the home side simply wasn’t good enough to get the job done in front of a bumper Old Boys’ Day crowd of 24,662.
And it was as much about the eight injured starting players who sat helplessly on the sideline as the 17 who took the field.
Skipper Mitchell Pearce was outstanding, leading from the front and couldn’t have done any more. Prop Daniel Saifiti ran for 229 metres, continually putting a dent in the Dragons defence and Aidan Guerra and Herman Ese’ese were tireless.
But without the attacking threat of Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson and Lachlan Fitzgibbon on an edge, the Dragons defence ate up much of what was thrown at them.
A telling stat was the 46 tackles the Dragons made in their own 20 metre zone in giving up just three tries.
“We had eight blokes out from round one and two,” Brown said.
“If we had a little bit more out there, I think everyone would agree we would have covered them pretty comfortably I reckon.
“They basically got two intercept tries and they are not going to get that luxury next week.”
Defence was also an issue as it has been all season.
The Knights led 10-2 at halftime after first half tries to wingers Ken Sio and Shaun Kenny-Dowall but leaked 22 points and four tries in the second half.
The Dragons went ahead 14-10 when winger Nene MacDonald scored a long range try and it was 18-10 with 12 minutes left after a Knights attacking error close to the Dragons line saw the visitors picked up the loose ball and run 85 metres with fullback Matt Dufty crossing.
But when Pearce brilliantly executed a cross kick four minutes later for Sio to expertly touch down for his double, the Knights had a genuine sniff.
It was not long after that Mitch Barnett was controversially denied a try under the posts after a Dufty spilt bomb that cannoned off Jack Cogger was ruled to have touched the Knights five-eighths’ arm.
Brown was convinced it should have been a try.
“I thought it [the decision] was a bit stiff,”he said.
Barnett was also involved in another near miss where he failed to pass to an unmarked Kenny-Dowall before being shut down by Dragons winger Jordan Pereira.
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The loss left the Knights with nine wins for the season, a vast improvement on previous years but with still plenty to do to become a genuine top eight side in 2019.
“We are a long way ahead of where we were this time last year,” Brown said.
“I don’t think any club has been affected with injuries to key players like we have. But there are a couple of real key areas from a recruitment point of view we need to get right.”