Even without seven regulars and with three new faces in the team, coach Adam O’Brien expected a better performance from the Knights than the one they produced in their 40-4 loss to Parramatta.
The players felt the same, O’Brien said, especially on their annual “Once A Knight” Old Boys’ Day at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday.
Despite the presence of their 2001 premiership-winning team and more than 100 other former players, who formed a guard of honour before the game and hoped to inspire a special effort from the current crop, the Knights were never in it.
Newcastle conceded eight tries and scored just one – by Enari Tuala in the 76th minute to avoid a shut-out – to suffer their eighth loss from the past 11 games.
Any hope of repeating their upset of the Eels in the 2001 title decider was dashed as Parramatta raced to a 22-0 half-time lead and went on with the job after the break.
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"There’s some guys down there that would naturally be hurting after that loss but I reckon there is a little bit of added spice to this one," O’Brien said.
"They are disappointed. They’re a high-care bunch.
"They understand that there won’t be some nice things written about them tonight and tomorrow, but as we’ve discussed down there, there’s no point listening to the pats on the back if you’re not prepared to listen to the kicks in the bum.
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"So that’s coming, and we left ourselves open for that.”
Newcastle completed just 24 of 37 sets (65%) for the game, compared to Parramatta’s 36 of 44 (82%), and were guilty of 34 missed tackles and 27 ineffective.
"We didn’t make life real easy for ourselves early on. I think we were three from our first nine, or five from 11, something like that," O’Brien said.
"I don’t know whether the week got to us, we’re a young side out there – no doubt – but it just got like quicksand for us and it made life really tough.
"[Parramatta] are a good outfit, and I think we’ve seen this year, that if you’re down on personnel and you don’t hang on to the footy, plenty of sides have been beat by 40 this year.
"If you’re not going to hang on to the footy, then your contact’s got to be sound and unfortunately we were off a fair way."
The Knights were without seven starters – Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, Tyson Frizell, Daniel Saifiti, David Klemmer, Hymel Hunt and Edrick Lee – but were buoyed by a surprise 18-10 victory over Manly seven days earlier.
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Former Cowboys halfback Jake Clifford was one of three debutants, joined by Jack Johns – the son of premiership-winning former Knights playmaker Matthew Johns – and Taree junior Mat Croker.
O’Brien anticipated cohesion and chemistry were always going to be difficult to establish with such a makeshift team, and he's dealt with those issues for most of the season, but he still expected more from the 17 players who donned the jersey.
"Please don’t think I’m giving excuses here but you take seven out of Penrith’s side, they get beat, and we’ve had seven or eight out every single week," he said.
"… It took me a long time to come to that realisation, but you lose seven or eight key personnel out of the side, most sides will struggle.
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"If you take two wingers, a fullback and a couple of halves out of Parra and get them to play for eight rounds, it’s going to take its toll, so I understand that, but we can’t dish that up either.
"We can’t turn up to the footy and expect to turn over that much ball against a quality outfit, then not get your contact on. Regardless of who’s out there, we expect that to be better and we’ll keep working at it."
The Knights face another difficult assignment against South Sydney at Stadium Australia next Saturday then host the Warriors in Newcastle one week later before the representative round bye.
Klemmer will return from suspension against the Warriors and O’Brien hopes Pearce, Hunt and possibly Ponga will be available to join him.
"Perhaps not next week but the week after, we’ll get a fair contingent back," O’Brien said.
"Mitchell’s fairly close so, this week might be a bit short but he’s looking pretty good for the Warriors and I think Hymel will be the same … and Kalyn is progressing pretty well.
"So there’s some pretty big ins to come back."