The finals have come a week early for Newcastle, with the blockbuster between the Knights and Panthers to decide which club takes the final place in the 2009 top eight.
In a carbon copy of their 2008 season, the Knights are now precariously hanging on a final-round win over Penrith to guarantee their season extends into September, after looking like they were assured of it just a few months ago.
Last year Newcastle were in eighth going into Round 26, but were pummelled by the Broncos 24-2, to bump them back to ninth.
The pain of that still lingers with the Knights, but halfback Jarrod Mullen does not believes the spectre of last year’s heartbreak will affect their performance on Sunday.
“Yeah it is a bit of motivation for us, having gone through all that last year,” Mullen tells Big League.
“No-one ever wants to be that team to just miss out, but this is a new team this season. We’re not going to be thinking too much about last year at all, we’ve put it out of our minds.
“We just need to go out there and give the best performance we can.”
Maybe the Knights love the thrill and drama of leaving their run to the last game of the year, because they had the chance to secure a finals berth two weeks out from the play-offs with a win in Canberra last weekend.
Unfortunately they continued their horror run in the nation’s capital and blew a chance to end Penrith’s season prematurely by capitulating to the Raiders. It ended all hope of a pressure-free situation at EnergyAustralia Stadium on the Knights’ Old Boys Day. Mullen knows there are lessons they learnt from the Raiders game that cannot be repeated against the Panthers, who will be equally desperate for a win.
“That was a tough game for us,” Mullen says of the Raiders loss.
“They started on fire but I thought we did well to stick in there because they can really run away with a game. For the Panthers we need to improve our start, that’s the main thing we’ll be looking at this week.
“The Panthers will come out firing and they’ve got some big men who will really run hard at you so we have to be on our game from the very beginning.”
Mullen is not afraid to admit this game is not only do-or-die, but will take on finals proportions. He predicts it will be played like any other big game, with the intensity to match.
“We’re treating this as a semi-final game,” he admits. “If we do beat the Panthers then we really need to knuckle down again because it really is finals football after that, and both teams will be pretty keen to win.”
The enormity of this game and what it means to two teams, who by all rights should be playing in the finals after much-improved seasons, will bring the Newcastle crowds out. It will be an odd experience for Panthers halfback Luke Walsh, who has only ever experienced life in the red and blue at Newcastle.
Squeezed out at the beginning of the season due to a surplus of halves at the club, Walsh could now be a valuable commodity for the Knights with Ben Rogers’ probable suspension. Walsh has been a revelation for Penrith but was clearly disappointed after a huge loss to the Eels last round. This week though, the halfback won’t hold anything back against his old club.
“We’ll go to training and work hard like we always do and put it out of our minds I suppose,” he says.
“It’s Newcastle, and it’s all or nothing. One game left and hopefully we stay in there and sneak into the eight and see what happens.
“Yeah it’s going to be different running out from the away sheds but I’m looking forward to it, I can’t wait.”
The thought of not being rewarded with a place in the finals for either side is tough, and Mullen knows if the Knights do not defeat the Panthers for that final spot, it will be another wasted season.
“We’ve trained so hard and had a lot of ups and downs,” he says.
“A few weeks ago we looked like we were there, then it changed and we looked like missing out. That’s the thing though, the comp is so close.
“[Penrith] will be very fired up. It’s the last chance.”