Coach Wayne Bennett described the Knights as ‘‘fragile’’ after a fumbling, bumbling 32-10 loss to Penrith at Hunter Stadium on Sunday that left them in last place.
Newcastle slipped behind Cronulla on points difference after suffering their third straight loss, and seventh from nine games this season.
Both teams have four premiership points, but the Sharks have a superior differential of minus 67 to Newcastle’s minus 70, and a game in hand against Parramatta on Monday night.
It was Newcastle’s third loss from four home games this season and Penrith’s first away win, and their biggest at Hunter Stadium since a 46-12 rout in 2007.
Though Bennett said he was not unhappy with his team’s effort, the Panthers appeared to be more determined, more desperate, and created their own luck by making big plays.
According to NRL Stats, the Knights completed 23 of 36 sets (64%) compared to Penrith’s 34 of 41 (83%), committed 16 errors to Penrith’s nine and missed 40 tackles to Penrith’s 34.
Though he threw the final pass for winger James McManus’ try in the sixth minute, which gave the Knights their only lead at 4-0, Joey Leilua threw another two passes that led directly to Penrith tries on a day the giant centre would rather forget.
‘‘Until that last try [by James Segeyaro], when they scored right on full-time there, I thought the one thing we had done pretty well all arv was that we hadn’t given up, and there were a lot of reasons to give up at different stages today,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘We’re a pretty fragile footy team, and we do things that make us even more fragile ...
‘‘Obviously we’re depleted with players, but you expect the guys to put their hand up, and we go out there and we have a game with a lot of effort in it, but not much execution at different stages when it was important, so we’ve just got to stay at it. We don’t have an alternative.
‘‘There’s enough quality in the place, it’s just a case of not losing confidence in everything that we do and why we do it ...
‘‘Typical of losing teams, or a losing attitude at the time, is you make a handling error, then you give a penalty away, then you get scored on. That’s the one thing the top teams don’t do.
‘‘We all make mistakes, but teams that are mentally strong don’t do that.
‘‘We’re fragile, and we’re doing that right now, and we’ve been doing it all season, so you can just about write the script for it.’’
Thunderclaps, flashes of lightning and torrential rain during the first half created uncomfortable conditions for players, officials and the crowd of 13,682, but the Panthers did a better job of adjusting, scoring six tries to two.
Leilua’s first howler occurred in the 21st minute when Penrith fullback Matt Moylan batted Peter Wallace’s grubber kick back into Newcastle’s in-goal area and Leilua forced a pass to McManus, which David Simmons simultaneously grounded before Moylan touched down.
His second stinker came 10 minutes into the second half when the Knights, trailing 20-10, were on the attack deep in Penrith territory until Leilua flung a no-look behind-the-back pass which Panthers centre Dean Whare swooped on and raced 75 metres to score.
‘‘Five or six minutes into that second half there, all of a sudden they picked up a try from a crazy pass and all of a sudden we’re on the back foot again,’’ Bennett said.
Bennett lamented a similar setback in the first half, when Kade Snowden knocked on from the kick-off after Dane Gagai’s try had levelled the scores at 10-10 in the 27th minute.
Jamie Soward responded with a solo try three minutes later to give Penrith a 16-10 lead they never relinquished.
Considered a NSW contender just two weeks ago when a knee injury ruled him out of City Origin selection contention, Leilua was guilty of five errors, according to NRL Stats.
He was tackled into touch late in each half in attacking situations, and in the 72nd minute passed the ball in front of McManus and into touch. Two minutes later Robbie Rochow spilled a Tyrone Roberts pass just as he appeared certain to break away.
It was that sort of day for the Knights.
‘‘You don’t get a win for the effort, unfortunately,’’ Knights captain Kurt Gidley said.
‘‘The most disappointing thing was probably defensively, especially after we had a pretty good defensive game against the Dogs [two weeks ago] ... so, to have a blow-out score like that again today, it’s a step backwards again, unfortunately.’’
Bennett said props Willie Mason and Korbin Sims would return from suspension against Manly at Brookvale Oval next Monday, and lock Jeremy Smith could be available after missing the past two matches with a knee injury.
Like the Knights, the Panthers were missing several key forwards yesterday.
Captain Kevin Kingston (ankle), prop Tim Grant (calf), and back-rowers Elijah Taylor (knee) and Lewis Brown (pectoral muscle) were spectators.
Nigel Plum (concussion) and Adam Docker (thumb and knee) joined them in the casualty ward, leaving the Panthers with just two interchange players in the second half.
‘‘Some guys went further and played a lot more minutes than they have before, so that’s good for them and a good little progression,’’ Penrith coach Ivan Cleary said.
‘‘We were doing it tough in the second half, and they (Newcastle) were dominating field position there for a while, but we were able to keep them out, so that was pleasing.’’
Plum knocked himself out with a shoulder charge on Jarrod Mullen in the 26th minute that ended his game and resulted in him being reported. Knights bench hooker Adam Clydsdale was reported for an alleged ‘‘crusher’’ tackle on Jeremy Latimore in the 75th minute.