Finals football may well have eluded the Newcastle Knights again this season, but after a year of improved results and a significant move up the table, they enter this Friday night clash with the Wests Tigers with the chance to impact on another side's ability to play post-season footy.
The Tigers are hanging onto the bottom end of the top-eight in ninth place, but four points behind and with a negative points differential, they will need to pick up a handy win in the Hunter to keep their slim hopes of sudden death football alive into next week.
Despite their improved efforts under coach Nathan Brown this year, the Knights could potentially be disappointed that they won't feature in finals talk having let a few points slip through their fingers at various times throughout the season.
The Tigers too will be disappointed with the way their season has panned out after a red-hot start saw them amongst the best sides in the league. A penchant for knocking off high-ranking opposition but then failing to consolidate with losses to lower-ranked sides will haunt Ivan Cleary over the long off-season.
Two teams that will take stock at the end of the regular season and wonder what might've been.
The Knights could've easily had a few more wins under their belt if experienced field general Mitchell Pearce hadn't missed nine games - seven of which were losses.
Injuries also haven't been kind to the Wests Tigers but they had their chances to consolidate a top eight spot at various stages of the season.
They looked like they were coming home strong with back-to-back wins over the Dragons and Rabbitohs, only to lose their way last week against the Bulldogs.
2018 - Newcastle 22 def. Wests Tigers 20 at Scully Park (Tamworth)
2017 - Wests Tigers 33 def. Newcastle 12 at McDonald Jones Stadium
2016 - Wests Tigers 20 def. Newcastle 12 at Campbelltown Stadium
2016 - Newcastle 18 def. Wests Tigers 16 at Hunter Stadium
2015 - Newcastle 24 def. Wests Tigers 18 at Campbelltown Stadium
Newcastle won a thrilling encounter between these two sides earlier in the year at Tamworth's Scully Park.
The Knights, in their stunning high-vis miner's jersey, saw some of the best from Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce as they gave up a 10-0 half-time lead to trail 20-14 into the last minutes of the contest.
A Shaun Kenny-Dowall try with less than two minutes on the clock saw the Knights grab an impressive victory over the Tigers which, at the time, lifted them into the top-eight.
|Newcastle Knights||Wests Tigers|
|1||Kalyn Ponga||Moses Mbye|
|2||Ken Sio||David Nofoaluma|
|3||Sione Mata'utia||Esan Marsters|
|4||Cory Denniss||Kevin Naiqama|
|5||Shaun Kenny-Dowall||Corey Thompson|
|20/6||Jack Cogger||Benji Marshall|
|7||Mitchell Pearce||Luke Brooks|
|8||Herman Ese'ese||Russell Packer|
|9||Danny Levi||Robbie Farah|
|10||Daniel Saifiti||Ben Matulino|
|11||Lachlan Fitzgibbon||Michael Chee-Kam|
|12||Mitchell Barnett||Luke Garner|
|13||Aidan Guerra||Elijah Taylor|
|14||Jamie Buhrer||Alex Twal|
|15||Chris Heighington||Sauaso Sue|
|16/17||Josh King||Matthew Eisenhuth|
|17/18||JJ Felise||Jacob Liddle|
|18/19||Nick Meaney||Chris McQueen|
|19/21||Sam Stone||Malakai Watene Zelezniak|
The facts that matter
Much of the focus heading into this Friday night clash will be on how the Knights respond after blowing a good lead last weekend against the North Queensland Cowboys.
The Cowboys have been woeful for much of 2018 but the Knights were unable to put them away and paid the ultimate price as the dropped a valuable pair of competition points in dire circumstances.
The combinations between Kalyn Ponga, Jack Cogger and Mitchell Pearce are slowly gelling together, but with Cogger not settled in perfectly alongside Pearce and the latter spending time away from the park through injury, it's hard to see the trio combining perfectly week to week.
The Knights built last week's lead on good field position, possession and ball-handling and while they couldn't see that one out, Nathan Brown will want much of the same this week in terms of coming out on top in the key statistical battles.
Slow starts to the second-half have hurt the Knights quite a bit this season, so if we're locked in a close contest at the break, how Nathan Brown and his side approach the first few minutes after the half-time oranges could play a key role in how this one pans out.
Connor Watson has been dropped out of the side which Jack Cogger named to start alongside Pearce in the halves. Cory Denniss comes into the centres to replace the injured Nathan Ross who is out indefinitely with a groin issue.
JJ Felise has been named on the bench to make his debut for the club while Jacob Lillyman's abdominal injury sees Herman Ese'ese shifted into the starting prop forward role.
Last weekend came with its own horrors for the Wests Tigers who threw away the momentum they'd built with back-to-back victories over the St George Illawarra Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs in a stunning and disappointing loss to competition battlers Canterbury-Bankstown.
That sort of inconsistency has plagued Ivan Cleary's side all season and will have the Tigers on edge when they take on the Knights this week, a side they should beat if they are to stake any sort of claim to finals football.
The New Zealand Warriors dropping their bundle against the Titans last round keeps the Tigers in the race, but they can ill-afford any more setbacks.
With any luck, the complacency of last week will be a thing of the past, however, and the Tigers should be up for a big clash in the horrid 6pm Friday night time slot.
As ever, the Tigers will rely on their stout defence to keep them in the contest for as long as possible, but it will be their lacklustre attack that needs to lift if they are to trouble a Newcastle outfit that has shown a good level of improvement year on year.
On the team-sheet, Ivan Cleary has kept things fairly settled with no changes to the squad picked. Only Pita Godinet and Robbie Rochow drop away from the initial 21-man squad.
The Tigers remain without Chris Lawrence (hamstring), Mahe Fonua (arm) and Josh Reynolds (shoulder) from their top 30 roster.
This game looms as an interesting way to enter the weekend. The Knights showed plenty of good in last week's clash with the Cowboys, but the way they let the points slip is troubling and does make backing them a little more difficult this Frida night.
Equally, the Tigers were woeful against the Bulldogs when they had absolutely everything to play for, so that's troubling in and of itself.
Despite that, the Tigers do still have more to play for this week as well, and I have to hope they'll be more up to the challenge. Tigers by 4 points.
Which team will bounce back from a last-start loss and claim the points in Newcastle? Let us know in the comments below.