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Outspoken O'Brien expected Ponga to silence critics

Knights coach Adam O'Brien had an inkling during the week that Kalyn Ponga was poised to return to his best against South Sydney on Saturday night.

That he did in a nerve-wracking 20-18 victory at Bankwest Stadium, scoring a try and setting up another after receiving criticism about his attacking output in recent games.

Ponga hadn't recorded a try or line-break involvement in his past two matches but O'Brien felt the pressure on the fullback wasn't fair.

"We expect a lot of him, OK. He expects a lot of himself. I thought he was outstanding tonight right from the start," O'Brien said.

"And he had a bit of a look about him this week that pleased me at training. In saying that, I thought the team played better ... so that's going to help him. He's a byproduct of the team, it's not just everything on Kalyn's shoulders."

O'Brien said the forward pack, bolstered by Mitch Barnett's return from a neck injury, had laid a better platform for Ponga.

"He actually gets a try through his talent on the back of what those guys done," O'Brien said.

Match Highlights: Rabbitohs v Knights

"I think we all played a part in last week [losing to the Eels] and everybody was writing articles about this young bloke [Ponga].

"I thought he answered them really well."

Asked if he felt he had a point to prove in attack, Ponga steered the conversation towards Newcastle's work without the ball.

Re-live the final minutes of Rabbitohs-Knights

"Defence wins games at the end of the day. That's the thing that we've been focusing on a lot as a team and as a spine," Ponga said.

"Off the back of that, you defend well [and] you give yourself opportunities to score. We did that for 60 minutes and then sort of fell off at the back end."

The 22-year-old star conceded he was "filthy on himself" for his goal-kicking, with his three missed attempts almost costing the team.

"I've just got to work hard on it," Ponga said.

O'Brien admitted his heart "had stopped a heap of times" in the second half as Newcastle conceded three tries in the final 15 minutes and looked destined to be overrun by the Rabbitohs.

"They're a quality team. I guess when there's a little bit of scoreboard pressure off, then you add guys like Cody Walker and [Adam] Reynolds and James Roberts ... they're going to come at you hard," the coach said.

"They did that. I was a little bit disappointed with a couple of those efforts on the try-line defensively but at the end of the day we got the win."

Ponga believes his side needed to "take a breath" and recompose themselves amid the frantic finish.

Barnett's return from a neck injury that kept him sidelined since round two gave the Knights a noticeable lift.

Ponga beats Walker on the outside

"[He provides] aggression with or without the ball," O'Brien said.

"It's good to have him and Connor [Watson] back. It's been a long time without both of them. They add so much to us and I feel like we'll only get better having them in and around the group the more training we do.

"Certainly the attack will get better and combinations will get better."

Despite now being in fourth place, O'Brien revealed some players were downcast upon returning to the dressing sheds at full-time.

"We need to just enjoy the win," he said.

"That's a quality team that we're playing against and it's another close to three-hour bus trip down here.

"It's not easy ... But there's some stuff that we need to seriously look at on Monday."