Newcastle legend Steve Simpson has urged the Knights' forwards to step up and take the challenge to the Bulldogs' big boppers at Hunter Stadium on Sunday, insisting "the sky's the limit" for the Novocastrians in 2013 if their pack aims up.
Wayne Bennett's team currently sits in fifth position on the NRL ladder after an impressive start to the year, but two recent losses, including a 44-14 capitulation against the Raiders last week, have critics talking of a mid-season collapse.
Simpson, a 216-game veteran from 1999-2010, isn't too worried for his former side currently missing Danny Buderus, Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith, though – provided their forwards shoulder the added responsibility, starting this week against Canterbury.
"I think [the Knights] can compete with the top four sides at the moment," Simpson, currently working as an operator in the mining industry, tells NRL.com.
"Obviously ‘Bedsy' (Buderus) is a fairly big loss around the ruck there, and Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott are consistent and hard-nosed players. Once they get those players back and provided the rest of the forwards remain fit, it'll be exciting for the players and the outside backs, who could score a lot of tries.
"With a few more boys in the middle to stiffen it up… the sky's the limit for them; it just depends how they come out when the boys play and how they gel together and hopefully the team can find that consistency."
This Sunday the Knights' forwards face arguably their biggest test of 2013, clashing with last year's grand-finalists the Bulldogs and a mammoth pack featuring the likes of Sam Kasiano, Tony Williams, Frank Pritchard and James Graham. It's an opportunity for the Knights' forwards to save face after the Raiders ran for 400 metres more in the clash in Canberra last week.
Simpson also knows the team needs to work harder in defence after an alarming drop-off in intensity in their past two games: through round seven the Knights were averaging just 16 missed tackles a match – fewer than any team – but worryingly they have missed a combined 69 tackles in their back-to-back losses.
"Now they've got their big boys back in the middle – James Graham and big Sam – I think they're a great side," Simpson warns of the Bulldogs who have recorded three consecutive victories and surged to 11th on the competition table.
"They definitely missed them early in the year – not having them early on really hurt them but now they've got them back they're looking a completely different team. They're going to be really tough, between them Souths, Melbourne… they've been one of the better-performed teams of the last few weeks."
A seven-Test and 13-time NSW representative, Simpson believes the secret to the Knights achieving success this season rests in their ability to repeat strong performances – they've already beaten the Tigers, Cowboys, Raiders, Panthers and Titans. And a lot of that rests on the shoulders of their starting players numbered eight through 13.
"It's a consistency thing," Simpson says. "Their forwards need to lay that platform and defend really well and their halves need to kick well and take the right options. I think their forward pack's the main thing, and having a bit of quality at the back end of the set from their halves is a big thing, too. If they can do that, I think it'll put them in good stead at the back of the year."
For the Knights to delve deep into September, perhaps coach Bennett needs to settle on his strongest No.7 candidate and permanent hooker, too. Newcastle's ‘Mr Fix It' Kurt Gidley has been used at halfback (four games), hooker (three games) and five-eighth (one game) so far this season, following the long lay-off to regular No.9 Buderus. As a result, exciting playmaker Tyrone Roberts has bounced from the starting No.7 to the bench, as has back-up hooker Travis Waddell. The shuffles have resulted in a lack of cohesion in their play at times this season, but Simpson has a long-term solution.
"I like [Gidley] at hooker," Simpson says. "He adds a lot to the team there and he's such a dynamic player – he gets out of dummy-half and he's such a hard worker. I think moving forward – obviously when ‘Bedsy' comes back into the team he's number one choice there – I think it's a good move to put Kurt in the middle. I think he adds a lot to the team there."
Roberts has impressed the former Australia back-rower too.
"He's a really confident young bloke and not afraid to get in there and make the calls," Simpson says. "I think it's been great how he's come ahead, he's got a lot of confidence, he's not afraid to take the line on, he's taking some right options and he's playing well."
This week, Simpson's wish has come true, with Roberts partnering five-eighth Jarrod Mullen in the halves, with Gidley starting at rake. Facing the determined Doggies will prove a difficult task, especially missing premiership-winning forwards Smith and Scott.
"I played quite a few games against Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott – you know what you're getting every week out of them," Simpson says.
"That consistency is such a big thing – the difference between their top game and their lesser game isn't too much. They're valuable blokes to have around the club."
Simpson, though, isn't writing off his former team's chances.
"I think [Newcastle's] forwards need to lay a platform for their halves to kick well and create a bit of space for their outside backs," Simpson says.
"It's all in the forward pack – if their forward pack can get over the top of the Bulldogs' forward pack, it'll go a long way to winning the game for them."