“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
That line, delivered by his father, Reese, became the mantra that inspired fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
It does not apply to long-serving Knights duo Sione Mata’utia and Mitchell Barnett as they prepare for their last game of the season against the Panthers at Penrith on Sunday.
Newcastle’s faint finals flame was snuffed out when Wests Tigers savaged the Dragons 42-14 at the SCG last Sunday. The highest the Knights can finish now is ninth, and they must beat fellow under-achievers Penrith to have any chance.
Rather than reflect on the disappointing end to a campaign that looked so promising midway through the year, when the Knights won six straight to climb to fourth, Mata’utia and Barnett are only concerned with the game against the Panthers.
“There’s still something to play for, I think,” Mata’utia told reporters before training on Thursday.
“We’ve spoken about finishing the year as high as we can and ending this year on a positive.”
After a season fluctuating between losing sequences and winning streaks, Barnett said the players owed it to their fans to show the same intent and intensity demonstrated in recent wins against the Cowboys and Titans, rather than the insipid surrender to Wests Tigers in between those games.
Though their 38-4 victory over the Titans last Saturday kept a faint finals pulse for 24 hours, Barnett said the Knights were resigned to missing the play-offs for the sixth straight season after their humiliating 46-4 loss to Wests Tigers seven days earlier.
“We haven’t been good enough the last few weeks and our fans deserve a strong finish to the year, and that’s what me and the boys intend on giving them,” Barnett told reporters on Thursday.
“We’re too good a team to be sitting 10th, 11th or 12th, and if we miss the eight, we want to be ninth. That’s the goal, and that’s the motivation we need heading into this weekend, and if we can do that, we can take something out of where we finish.
“It’s still disappointing not being in the eight, but as close to it as possible will be good enough for me at the moment.
“For us, we can’t put up what we’ve tossed up – if you take away last week – in the weeks before that, and we need to start playing for our fans and our club.
“They deserve a team that’s winning games. Our fans have put up with the most out of anyone’s in the comp so that’s my personal motivation, and I know it’s a lot of the other boys’ motivation, but winning is just good enough motivation for us, I reckon.”
Barnett and Mata’utia are both products of the Knights’ junior system, though Barnett made his NRL debut for Canberra in 2015 before returning to Newcastle midway through the next year.
A regular in NSW and Australian junior teams while making his way along Newcastle’s development pathway, Mata’utia made his NRL debut for the Knights as an 18-year-old late in the 2014 season then became Australia’s youngest representative after just seven first grade games.
Mata’utia endured three straight years collecting the wooden spoon with Newcastle and Barnett joined him for the second and third of those, so the chance to finish ninth is a brighter prospect than those dark days.
“For me personally, I was definitely one of those guys at the start of the year thinking we’ve got a good shot and it was going to be my first crack at finals footy, so I was devastated,” Mata’utia said.
“In saying that, there’s a lot of positives we’ve had throughout the year. It’s the first time I’ve been a part of a team with so many representative players, which is pretty cool to see, so it’s a testament to how the team’s come along.
“We’re better for it, from the past we’ve been through … you’ve got to try to learn from it.
“This week is all about the love of footy and finishing as high as we can. If we win this week, we can possibly finish ninth.
“This is as close as I’ve ever gotten … three games out, we were pretty close to making it, and it was on us, so that’s a big positive for me from where I’ve been.
“We’ve been halfway through the season and pretty much guaranteed the wooden spoon, so I know which one I’d rather be a part of – three games out and a chance to make the finals.”