Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien said during the week that he wasn’t concerned with any outside noise about his future, and all that mattered was putting together a game plan for Sunday’s showdown with the Panthers.
Granted, losing the Knights’ best player to a head knock within 20 minutes wouldn’t have been in said plan, but regardless, Kalyn Ponga’s absence was no excuse for the 42 unanswered points that the premiers ran in, before Edrick Lee’s late consolation try.
A 42-6 loss leaves them barely outside the bottom four, and miles away from finals football, which they enjoyed in both of O’Brien’s first two seasons at the club.
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There isn’t really a precise reason for their drop in form, but after two straight wins to open the year, they’ve dropped nine of 11, with their only victories coming against the lowly Bulldogs and Warriors.
And it’s not just defeats, it’s the manner that they’ve come in – only once, against the Dragons, was the score kept remotely close.
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Their other eight losses? By 18, 18, 24, 37, 48, 20, 24 and now 36.
It’s one thing to lose, it’s another to leave your fans entirely devoid of hope – few of a red and blue persuasion would have expected a win today, but it was never even a contest.
O’Brien was at a loss to why their form, particularly at home, was so bad.
“If I could, I’d have more than one finger on it – I’d have the whole hand on it,” he said.
When you’re a team that’s rebuilding and you’ve mentally prepared yourself for some lean years, as Souths did in the early to mid-2000s, the Knights themselves did after Wayne Bennett left, or the Bulldogs are currently doing, you appreciate the victories when they come, and just try to make the best of it.
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But when you’re a team that’s made consecutive finals series, and expected to take another leap in a squad bursting with talent, it hurts that much more when you fall short.
“We’ve all got to be working really hard at eradicating this, and we’re fortunate – we’ve got the right people in the organisation, and we’ve identified [what we need to do],” O’Brien said.
“It’s not an easy fix, but trust me, we’re working at it every day.”
At times, O’Brien could hardly watch. If the defeats continue, he may not be watching from the coaches box much longer.
Penrith, for its part, was brilliant – particularly in the first half when it looked as though the Panthers could score every time they got the ball.
Without Ivan Cleary, who was absent for medical reasons, they were still in red-hot form, as several key men took out their frustrations of a State of Origin loss on the Knights.
Nathan Cleary and Stephen Crichton both scored while Brian To’o had a double, with Jarome Luai heavily involved as well.
They remain on top of the table, a world away from Newcastle – who will head to Canberra next week to play the Raiders.
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