Knights belt Dragons to enter finals as NRL's form team


Newcastle have shrugged off the absence of injured talisman Kalyn Ponga and cruised to a 32-12 win over St George Illawarra that confirms they will enter the finals as the NRL's form team.

Ponga (shoulder), Jackson Hastings (ankle), Dane Gagai, Tyson Frizell, Phoenix Crossland and Leo Thompson (all rested) missed Saturday's clash at Jubilee Stadium where the Knights clinched fifth spot on the ladder with a ninth-straight win.

No side in the NRL era has finished in the bottom half of the top eight while qualifying for the finals in better form.

Heading into the play-offs next week, the next-longest winning streak will be four games shorter than the Knights'.

It comes after Newcastle sat in the bottom four through 19 rounds, their finals hopes appearing shot.

"I was always confident we could turn it," coach Adam O'Brien said.

"I didn't think about fifth spot and a home semi and all that, I just knew we had a good team that was capable of putting it against the better teams.

"I had belief in the playing group."

While the Knights will face sterner tests than the 16th-placed Dragons in the finals, they can draw strength from maintaining their relentless attack without Ponga, the chief architect of the streak, and their other key players.

"I'm really proud of that fact," O'Brien said.

"We spoke all week about putting in a really professional performance and by professional, we meant it didn't matter who wasn't playing, it was more about who was."

Ponga and halfback Hastings are on track to return when Newcastle host either Canberra or the Sydney Roosters in their first home final since 2006.

"I'm confident on both," O'Brien said.

The Knights laid the groundwork for victory with a blistering opening 10 minutes, and sealed it with some resilient goal-line defence in the second half.

Adam Elliott put stand-in captain Jacob Saifiti over with a flat ball in the opening two minutes before Tyson Gamble belted down the right to set Enari Tuala up.

Ben Hunt gave the Dragons a sniff with a chip-and-chase that put the scoreline at 12-6 in the first half.

But that was as close as they came, unable to truly capitalise on handy field position in the second half.

In the final three minutes, Knights winger Dom Young set a club record for most tries in a season (22) when he managed to plant the ball in the corner as he was spun upside down by Moses Suli. His second pushed the record to 23.

The result closes the book on a disappointing year for the Dragons, who finished with their fewest wins in any season as a joint venture (five).

The NRL's worst left-edge defence, the mid-year axing of coach Anthony Griffin and the protracted interest around Hunt's failed release request all worked against the Dragons.

But the Dragons' improvement under interim coach Ryan Carr was undeniable, albeit unclear from results alone, and the arrival of premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan next year is cause for optimism.

"We're learning a lot of tough lessons, unfortunately, this playing group along the way," Carr said.

"But I think you can see from the performances over the last two months that we can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the comp when we get it right. Unfortunately, we didn't tonight."