Robert Dillon: Newcastle Knights have made progress in 2018, but even more is required.

THE names on the sidelines were a fair indication of the odds stacked against Newcastle before a ball was kicked.

Kalyn Ponga. Connor Watson. Lachlan Fitzgibbon. Slade Griffin. Jacob Lillyman. Nathan Ross. Tautau Moga. Jacob Saifiti.

St George Illawarra had their own absentees, namely skipper Gareth Widdop, Paul Vaughan, Jason Nightingale and Euan Aitken, but they also arrived at McDonald Jones Stadium with close to their strongest pack, and clearly with far more at stake.

TRY TIME: Newcastle players celebrate after winger Ken Sio scores against the Dragons on Saturday. Picture: Darren Pateman, AAP

TRY TIME: Newcastle players celebrate after winger Ken Sio scores against the Dragons on Saturday. Picture: Darren Pateman, AAP

The Dragons were in no danger of missing the play-offs, but anything less than victory would have left them limping into the business end of the season, and possibly facing a trip to hell in week one of the finals series.

In the end the visitors emerged with a 24-14 win that, despite the positive appraisal of coach Paul McGregor, did little to suggest their prospects of long-term survival were encouraging.

With an ounce of luck, the Knights could, and probably should, have won this game.

They were deserved 10-2 leaders at half-time, but apparently left their energy in the sheds at the break, conceding three tries to trail 18-10. But when Ken Sio scored in the 71st minute, the crowd of 24,662 – Newcastle’s largest home attendance since 2014 – found their voice.

Two minutes later, Dragons fullback Matt Dufty fumbled a bomb and Knights lock Mitch Barnett appeared to have scored between the posts, only to be denied by a contentious video-refereeing decision. Knights coach Nathan Brown, rarely one to grumble about the whistle-blowers, reckoned it was “a bit stiff” that his team were not back on level terms, with a kick to come from right in front.

Whether or not they would have won from there, we’ll never know. But with Mitchell Pearce calling the shots, and the crowd urging the men and blue to produce one final effort, they would surely have taken some stopping.

Not that a win would have changed much, anyway, other than making the beers at Mad Monday that little bit sweeter.

Newcastle would still have finished 11th, a vast improvement after three consecutive wooden spoons, but still a quantum leap – six wins – behind the top eight.

The players Newcastle have signed for next season, Tim Glasby (Melbourne), and Cronulla duo Jesse Ramien and Edrick Lee, will have a positive impact, but more big names are needed.

Brisbane bulldozer Tevita Pangai Jnr remains Newcastle’s No.1 recruitment target, and what a difference he would provide.

The Knights have come far since the nadir of 2016, but there is still a long way to go – as their season statistics highlight. They actually scored fewer points this year (414) than last season (428), despite the acquisition of Pearce and Kalyn Ponga. And defensively they conceded 607 points – more than any team except Manly (622).

To reach the finals next year, they will need to be much better. Their fans are entitled to expect as much.

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