Warriors face titanic challenge to playoff chance
The Warriors face two teams currently in the NRL's top four before the finals series is confirmed, yet the biggest threat to qualification could be posed by a club that is already out of title contention.
Although the Sydney Roosters and Penrith were in third and fourth place respectively, on recent form it was the lowly Gold Coast Titans - the team the Warriors visit either side of games with the premiership contenders - that could define the Kiwi club's season.
The Warriors' tendency to struggle against clubs that have spent 2014 in varying degrees of disarray has emerged at a worrying time for head coach Andrew McFadden who yesterday watched his roster slump to their first loss in Newcastle since 2009 - a 28-22 defeat that jeopardised their progression to post-season for the first time since 2011
A failure to collect two points at Hunter Stadium - seven days after wooden spoon contenders Cronulla were difficult to put away at Mt Smart - prevented the Warriors improving to fifth on the table with just three games remaining.
Considered by many Australian league pundits to be a top eight certainty - and even a top four seed for the first time since 1997 - another late season fade out was starting to materialise with Parramatta, Brisbane and St George Illawarra all within range.
In 2013 they beat Melbourne in round 20, but dropped out of the play-offs when a loss to the floundering Sharks triggered a costly three-game slump.
Admittedly Newcastle - who have endured a horror 2014 highlighted by former Warriors prop Russell Packer being jailed for assault, Alex McKinnon's spinal injury and Wayne Bennett's impending departure - had won five of their last seven games before the Warriors arrived, including a miraculous 32-30 cliffhanger over the Storm last weekend.
Still, the Warriors should have maintained their excellent record against a team ranked 14th, a place below the Titans on points differential - but superior goal kicking by Kurt Gidley proved the difference after both sides scored five tries.
Newcastle also dominated the key facets with a 9-5 penalty count and their 90 per cent completion rate underpinning a performance that left fans wondering what might have been.
Although the Warriors regrouped from a 14-point deficit late in the opening half - and then drew level - another 10-point buffer proved insurmountable despite late tries to David Fusitu'a and Manu Vatuvei.
"It was an important game to consolidate our position on the ladder, but we let it go," McFadden lamented after watching 18-year-old wing Sione Mata'utia score the first tries on his career - a hat-trick.
"We scored enough points, but conceded too many. If we want to be a top team, we just can't do that."
Ill-discipline was a feature throughout and there could be further repercussions for skipper Simon Mannering after he was placed on report for a high shot on Dane Gagai in the fourth minute.
McFadden was encouraged by the rally in the first half - where Fusitu'a and Vatuvei were again the scorers, but after the break, bad habits gradually re-emerged.
"We were quite optimistic at halftime that if we knuckled down, were patient with the football and fixed up our discipline we could get away with a win, but it was probably a little bit more of the same in the second half," he said.
McFadden denied complacency was an issue given the Knights epic comeback against Melbourne.
"We were ready, we certainly had the right mind set, we just lacked the execution and discipline things with our defence."
On a positive note halfback Shaun Johnson at least made a sound return from a persistent groin injury.
"I thought he was good," McFadden said.
"He had a couple of little errors there, but he was threatening, he ran the ball and his kicking game as fair.
Newcastle Knights 28: (Sione Mata'utia 3, Joey Leilua, Chanel Mata'utia tries; Kurt Gidley 4 goals)
NZ Warriors 22: (David Fusitu'a 2, Manu Vatuvei 2, Nathan Friend tries; Chad Townsend goal)