Andrew Bryan, NRL.com
It has been a season plagued by slow starts, but the Newcastle Knights know they cannot afford any more if they want to make the NRL finals.
The Knights’ season has been punctuated by sluggish openings, but after winning six from their last eight matches they have turned their season around and have given themselves a chance to make the top eight.
Just two months ago it looked impossible.
At the end of Round 14 Newcastle had lost five matches in a row and sat 14th on the ladder, with only four victories to their name. Their first season under Wayne Bennett looked to be heading for major disappointment.
But the players never lost belief in what they were doing or the systems that had been put in place, and 10 weeks later they now find themselves just outside the top eight.
Fullback Darius Boyd believes the early struggles the club endured were inevitable.
“I think it is just time really,” Boyd explained to NRL.com.
“All year we have been getting used to the way Wayne wants us to play and what he knows works, and I think at the start of the season we would win one and then lose one.
“We went through a five-game losing streak around Origin time, but having Mase (Willie Mason) come to the club and (Dane) Gagai has been really good for us.
“I think everyone has started to gel and it is starting to come together.
“All year we have tried to get some good form together and under Wayne I suppose there has been a fair bit of change and seeing how players play and a few different things.
“The club has started to put it together at the end of the season which is promising.”
The Knights have clawed their way back from the brink and are now just outside the top eight. The fact their season is still alive is testament to the playing group and the belief that they can still make an impact in 2012.
But if Newcastle are to make the finals, they cannot afford any more slow starts.
The key for Newcastle is controlling the game from the outset. The two losses they have suffered in the last two months of football have come off the back of terrible starts.
In Round 18 they trailed the Rabbitohs 22-4 after just 24 minutes and went on to lose 34-14, while their loss to the Bulldogs in Round 22 was precipitated by a 24-0 deficit after just 17 minutes.
For the Knights, making the finals is all about erasing the early mistakes.
“Definitely we have been inconsistent, even in patches in games,” Boyd said.
“Some weeks we have come out and have done what we needed to do and the following week we have done the total opposite.
“When you start off games well and you do the little things right, you might get the benefit at the end of the game and get a few tries and get a comprehensive win.
“But it all comes down to the hard work early, we’ve slowly learned that.
“We played the Sharks last week and they have been a top-eight side all year and we knew that we needed to get off to a good start.
“We trained all week with focus and concentrated on that and started with a 12-0 lead and we ended up running away with [the game].
“Here at the Knights, our start to the season wasn’t great, but we are hitting form at the right time of year.
“If we do make it, we’ll have beaten the top sides and we'll be in form and confident we can do it in the finals as well.”
Newcastle's last three games are against reigning premiers Manly at Brookvale Oval, North Queensland at Dairy Farmers Stadium and South Sydney at home.
It is an imposing fixtures list, possibly the toughest of all teams. If they make the finals there is no doubt they will have done it the hard way.
After winning premierships with Brisbane and St George Illawarra, Boyd is a man who knows about the glory of finals football and the pain of falling short.
“We have a hard run home, but it is a good test for us to see where we are really at,” Boyd offers.
“We’ve had some good wins. Newcastle hasn’t beaten the Warriors over in New Zealand for six or seven years and I had never beaten Canberra in the seven seasons I have played footy, and we won both those games.
“We are definitely coming over some hurdles and beating some good teams.
“We are still a chance and still thinking of making the finals, so everyone is enjoying their footy and hopefully if we can get some wins during our tough run home, we know we are going to be in really good form.”
For Newcastle, the finals tightrope will continue when they face Manly on Sunday afternoon.
Follow Andrew Bryan on twitter: @Andrewbryan321