They feel like they have let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers, letting themselves and their long-suffering fans down in the process.
But Newcastle back-rowers Mitchell Barnett and Sione Mata’utia have refused to give up on their finals hopes, or the season, as they try to help the Knights snap a six-game losing streak against North Queensland at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday.
After looking locked in for their first play-off appearance in six years just six weeks ago, even knocking on the door of the top four, Newcastle (18 points) have slumped to 12th.
Three adrift of eighth-placed Brisbane (21), the Knights must now win their last four games against the Cowboys, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast and Penrith, and hope a string of other results fall their way, to pull off a miracle and sneak into the finals.
“It was so disappointing losing, especially when that was your season on the line,” Barnett said on Monday, reflecting on their 20-14 loss to Parramatta at BankWest Stadium last Saturday.
“I think mathematically we can still make it, but that was sort of our grand final, which is really disappointing. But with footy, there’s next week, and we’re still a mathematical chance, so we can get up for this week and we’ll finish the year off strong, I’m sure of it.”
Though some Newcastle players attracted criticism for laughing and chatting with opponents on the field after full-time, Barnett said they were “more gutted than anyone” after losing to the Eels.
“I could see that through their reactions in the sheds and the emotion they were showing, and that’s after every loss as well,” Barnett said.
“The fans, I can understand where they’re coming from, but I can assure you our players are hurting, that’s for sure.”
Included in their six straight defeats have been losses at home to the Warriors, Bulldogs and Wests Tigers, and Barnett said the Knights owed it to their fans to be at their best against the Cowboys.
“We’re still alive – a mathematical chance, I think – and we should [play with] a bit of pride as well,” he said.
“Our fans have been through a lot and we owe them wins, and we’ve got the cattle here to produce that, so that’s all the motivation we should need. I’m confident the boys will get up and we have no excuses.
“We’ve got the most loyal base of fans I’ve ever seen, and they’ve probably endured the most. I’m 100 per cent sure they’ll turn out again for us this weekend.
“They have all year, and they have in previous years when they’ve had no real reason to, so I’m confident in that and I thank them for that and I can’t wait for this weekend.”
Mata’utia, who came off the bench against the Eels, felt certain the Knights were headed for their first finals appearance since 2013 – and the first play-off campaign of his six-year NRL career – when they won six straight games midway through the season.
That streak included the scalps of the finals-bound Roosters, Rabbitohs and Eels, but he struggled to put his finger on how and why they have run off the rails so spectacularly.
“All the players knew how big that game [against Parramatta] was,” Mata’utia said.
“To lose that one, it definitely hurts, because many players who have been at this club – especially the local boys – haven’t been to a finals position, and this is probably the closest we’ve been to a finals position since 2013, so it hurt so much, it really did.
“There’s still fire in the belly for most boys that want to try to make the finals, and if we’re still a chance, we’ll take it with both hands and try and make the most of it.
“This club deserves a finals appearance this year and after last week’s performance, we’ve definitely still got fire in the belly.
“We just have the main goal at the forefront of our minds, and that’s making a finals appearance and what’s important now, and that’s winning this week and leading into the next four games to try and make it.”