WITH their top-eight hopes riding on the outcome, the Newcastle Knights are primed for what shapes as a defining phase of their season - consecutive games against four teams rated as genuine premiership contenders.
Starting in Mudgee on Sunday, the Knights face St George Illawarra (away), Sydney Roosters (home), South Sydney (away) and Melbourne (away).
Their only respite during that daunting schedule will be a bye after hosting the Roosters on Friday week.
To put that in context, Newcastle have won just one of their past 30 games against those four clubs, at home to the Dragons in July, 2017.
Yet after consecutive victories against Parramatta, the Warriors and Canterbury, the Knights have built momentum and confidence and coach Nathan Brown believes the time is right for his men to test themselves in higher company.
"They're tough games," Brown said on Monday.
"There's no doubt that they're all roughly pretty much the top four from last year, or near enough to the top four.
"So it'll be a really good test for us ... [but] we're certainly in a far better spot to challenge better sides. There's no doubt."
A win against the Dragons would in all likelihood lift the Knights into the top eight, given that Manly (fifth) and Cronulla (seventh) clash this weekend, and both are only two competition points ahead of Newcastle.
"Obviously from where we were three or four weeks ago, the winning has given us confidence," Brown said.
"Hopefully that confidence, and seeing themselves climb up the ladder, will give them great motivation. But every week is just so important. It's hard each week to win.
"You look at the ladder, it's quite bizarre where we were three or four weeks ago and where we are now, and where we could be if we continue to play some decent footy and get results. On the reverse, you lose a couple and you can certainly drop down rather quickly as well."
The flip side of Newcastle's impressive form reversal, since losing five consecutive games between rounds two and six, is that rival teams are unlikely to underestimate them.
"I'm sure the way they approach us will be a little different to probably the way they approached us in the past," Brown said.
"That's something that's been a little different for Danny Levi and Fitzy [Lachlan Fitzgibbon] and Daniel Saifiti, that we're playing sides that are coming ready to play us all the time.
"Because the reality was that, in the past, sides could turn up and not quite be where they needed to be, and obviously our roster lacked a little experience and lacked in some areas.
"But now we feel our pack can certainly do a good job against any of the packs we come up against, if we play well, and if that happens our key players get a chance to play."
Brown admitted that, in hindsight, the criticism his team attracted after their 38-14 hammering from Gold Coast in round six had been the catalyst for their recent reveival.
"The players certainly have responded very well," he said. "Whether it was one of those watershed moments, I suppose we'll learn down the track.
"But we've certainly improved a lot since then."
He was hopeful that trend would continue.
"I think we've still got some growth in us ... we're still finding our way a little bit, with combinations," he said. "But we need that competing bit. When we get that right, we seem to give ourselves a chance."
Newcastle certainly won't be taking the Dragons, who beat them 13-12 in round four, lightly, especially if NSW Origin lock Jack de Belin is cleared to return from his NRL-imposed suspension.
"This week will be a big test," Brown said. "If Jack de Belin does return, the Dragons will have probably their best pack available for the first time this year.
"They've got three or four Origin players in it already, so that will be a really good start to the month for our forward pack."