Newcastle have slipped back into a five-team race for the final three spots in the NRL’s top eight after suffering their first back-to-back losses of the year.
The Knights’ 26-16 defeat at the hands of Melbourne dropped them down to seventh on the ladder, the lowest they have been in the 2020 season.
But coach Adam O’Brien was buoyed by their response after a shock loss to Canterbury last week, even if centre Bradman Best (ankle) was the latest to join the club’s long injury list.
O’Brien is eyeing off a four-week run of games against Wests Tigers, Manly, North Queensland and the Warriors as a chance to reinvigorate their charge.
“It is a challenge and we can choose to moan about who we don’t have, or celebrate who we do and flip the mindset and go after it,” he said.
“We’re still in the eight and we’ve been through the worst of the travel. If we can hang onto that grit and toughness then we’ll be a hard footy team to knock off in finals.”
With eight rounds remaining, it would appear the NRL’s current top four and Canberra are almost certain to be finals bound.
Based on 10 wins to qualify, Penrith, Melbourne and Parramatta have already done enough while the Sydney Roosters and Raiders need one more each.
Below them though it now looks like a race of five to fill the final three spots.
Cronulla’s 36-26 win over Brisbane gave their hopes a massive boost, with their sixth-place standing the highest they have been all year with 14 points – one clear of Newcastle.
However they still face another month without halfback Chad Townsend, and play the Eels and Panthers in the next three weeks.
South Sydney are eighth on 12 points after their 32-24 defeat of St George Illawarra and likely need wins from four of their last eight games to qualify.
The Rabbitohs have winnable games against Brisbane and North Queensland over the next fortnight before a tough run home.
Manly are ninth, sitting behind Souths on for-and-against but they have a major injury worries.
While they were flogged 42-12 by Penrith, more damage was done in the casualty ward on Saturday night as they face another long stint without five-eighth Dylan Walker.
The Sea Eagles do however have the best run home of the five contenders, with Melbourne and the Rabbitohs their only top-eight opponents to come.
And the Wests Tigers 26-20 loss to the Warriors looks set to cost them dearly.
They finish the round 10th, a win behind Souths and the Sea Eagles and win seven of their eight remaining games against sides above them on the ladder.
NRL’S RACE FOR THE EIGHT
6. Cronulla: 14pts (+46)
7. Newcastle: 13pts (+31)
8. South Sydney: 12pts (+34)
9. Manly: 12pts (-44)
10. Wests Tigers: 10pts (+52)
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