The Knights might have come away with the win, but the game wasn’t of high quality in any sense of the term.
Even with Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce on the field for just the fourth time this season, Newcastle seemingly spent the entire 80 minutes going through the motions against the last-placed Bulldogs.
While the Bulldogs deserve credit for the way they played, particularly with Jackon Topine forced to fill in at hooker (and then only lasting 20 minutes) and Josh Jackson missing the last quarter of an hour due to a head injury assessment, this is a side who have struggled dismally at both ends of the park all year.
Their defence has let in a staggering 674 points this season at 30.7 points per game. While they now hold only the second-worst defensive record in the competition thanks to the North Queensland Cowboys complete and utter incompetence at that end of the park, it’s still a record which wouldn’t sit well with Trent Barrett and his team.
The bottom line is that the Knights should have put a lot more points on the board last night. They had 56% possession, completed at 84%, ran for over 700 more metres than their opposition, had more line breaks and offloads, won the penalty count and made almost 50 less tackles.
Everything that could have possibly pointed the way of Newcastle, did. And yet, the side won by just six points, only scoring 22 of their own.
Four tries against one of the worst defensive outfits in the competition in a season where high scores have been the normal rather than a rarity simply isn’t good enough for a side who are about to try and make a run into the finals.
The Knights have plenty of issues to work out. This isn’t a one-off issue. Coming into this weekend, they held the second-worst attacking record in the NRL.
That does speak volumes of their defence, but at the same time, that isn’t going to win them big games, and hasn’t throughout the season.
In games against the current top six, they have let in 24, 38, 10, 40, 24, 48 and 28 with just one win (over Manly) in seven appearances. That’s an average of 30.3 points per game conceded, compared to their season average of 23.7 conceded.
Their attack overall meanwhile averages just 17.8 points per game, and in those games against the top six, and even more paltry figure of 7.7 points per game.
More often than not, the Knights’ attack has looked one-dimensional and pedestrian. They have the forwards to get them on the front foot though, and both David Klemmer and Jacob Saifiti were excellent last night, while the soon to depart Connor Watson has been something of a revelation at lock.
But the Knights need more dimensions to their attack, and one glaring weakness is not using Bradman Best anywhere near his potential.
The big centre - one of the most explosive in the NRL - might have an error or two in him, but when he gets a full head of steam, there are very few outside backs who are able to properly stop him.
His stats - 12 runs for more than 150 metres - won’t tell the whole story last night. 30 of those metres came as he capitalised and scored a try off a break created by Watson, before he received a pass in support from Jake Clifford.
The remainder of his runs seemed to give him very little space with which to work in, while Newcastle also prioritised attacking down the right edge. This is not a new trend, and again, the numbers Best has been able to pull speak more to how talented he is, rather than the Knights actually feeding him a good attacking structure with which to work off.
You could count the amount of times Best has received early ball out wide on two hands across the course of the season.
They constantly ignored him, and even when the ball did go left, it seemed to die away from Best more often than not.
Now, that may also be partly the fault of Best for not going searching for more work, but the point still stands. Good halves, a good spine, would find a way to get a player like Best the opportunities to put points on.
The Knights, regardless of what the numbers say, simply don’t do that.
Newcastle are going into the finals as a side likely to be simply making up the numbers. Frankly, whoever qualifies outside of the top six will be doing just that, making up the numbers. Whether it be the Knights, Titans, Sharks, Raiders or someone else creating a miracle, they are not competing with the top six.
But the Knights won’t want to view it that way. They will want to think they have a chance.
If they want that to be the case though, it’s time to overhaul their attack, and making a big, explosive weapon on the edge the focal point might just be the way to do it.