Knights coach Nathan Brown wants captain Mitchell Pearce to worry about himself to bring out the best in his teammates in Newcastle’s must-win game against North Queensland at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday.
Pearce was the hottest player in the NRL during Newcastle’s run of six straight wins, and then seven from eight during a 10-week stretch midway through the season, earning a call-up for NSW in the State of Origin decider at ANZ Stadium.
But the premiership-winning former Roosters halfback has gone off the boil and the Knights have crashed to six straight losses to be 12th with four games left, needing a miracle to make the finals.
Pearce is his own toughest critic and has been unhappy with his form since helping the Blues outlast Queensland 26-20 in Origin III, achieving a career highlight by securing his first interstate series.
"I suppose Pearcey's biggest fault can be when he takes too much on himself, and the key for Pearcey is understanding the players he's playing with here, and what he needs to do to help them play well," Brown told reporters after training in Newcastle on Friday.
"That's generally really to focus hard on his own game, and if he gets that bit right and not worries about anybody else, he generally plays very well for us.
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"Last year he was very good, then he got hurt, then he came back, and he was very good.
"This year, for that 10-week period, I don’t think there was a more influential player in the comp, so he just needs to really focus on getting himself right and not worrying about too many other people.
"When he gets that right, his energy is good and he plays well, and he helps other people play well."
Starting with Kalyn Ponga in the opening rounds, Pearce has had several five-eighth partners during the season including Connor Watson, Kurt Mann and current Knights No.6 Mason Lino.
Brown says Pearce can play so well it doesn't matter who is his halves partner, but the Knights aren't composed enough yet in the other key play-making positions to cover games when he is below his best.
"That’s the reality of it – Pearcey was playing so well – but when Pearcey’s not playing well, it certainly shows that we do have lack of experience in these key positions," Brown said.
"Kalyn’s still a young kid playing fullback who's not a game-controlling player, and our hookers aren't game-controlling players … so if Pearcey’s form is off a little bit, it can have an effect on the group."
Brown conceded the Knights had left themselves no wiggle room after losing six straight, but he believed a win against the Cowboys would lift their spirits and confidence, and potentially spark a rails run home in the next three weeks.
"Obviously it's our last throw at the stumps. We've got to win to keep our chances – that aren't all determined by us – alive," he said.
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"But the fact that all the sides in that area are playing each other, and we've lost a fair number of close games so our for-and-against is in a reasonable spot, it's just a matter of us playing well and winning – that's the key for us.
"I'm sure the players know where we're sitting … so we all know a win's the only result that can keep our season alive.
"North Queensland, they've come off one or two tight losses themselves of late, and they'd probably be looking at the number of close games they've just lost and thinking what could have been … and that's the difference in this competition.
"Your tighter games have a big impact on where you sit, and there comes a stage in the year when it's win at all costs, and that's where we are now.”