NEWCASTLE 26 CRONULLA 4

Newcastle's Danny Buderus on the chargel for the Knights.

Newcastle's Danny Buderus on the charge for the Knights. Photo: Darren Pateman

Just as it looked like Wayne Bennett's 21-year finals streak would come to an abrupt end in his first year in Newcastle, his Knights have given him reason to believe in No.22. They still have a mountain to climb - but at least they've started climbing.

It wasn't that long ago the ''rebuilding'' Knights were planning for 2013 and beyond, but after an impressive month - and another victory against the Sharks last night - suddenly football in September doesn't seem so far-fetched.

The Knights defence ensure Cronulla's Matthew Wright is down.

No love lost … former Shark Kade Snowden and Willie Mason tackle Matthew Wright. Photo: Darren Pateman

Of all the teams in the competition, none have a more difficult final three weeks than the Knights.

It begins at Brookvale Oval against the reigning premiers on Sunday, then to Townsville for a battle with the Cowboys before they return home for their final-round showdown with South Sydney.

Last night's emotion-charged 26-4 victory against the Sharks has propelled them into ninth position, ahead of Canberra on differential and two points behind the Tigers on the edge of the top eight.

While the Knights continue their rise up the table, Cronulla are still free-falling and are now in danger of tumbling out of the finals race.

They are only one point ahead of the eight-placed Tigers with three games against top-five teams (Rabbitohs, Storm, Cowboys) remaining.

Cronulla have now lost four of their last five games, while Newcastle's only hiccup over the past five weeks was a 16-point loss to competition frontrunners Canterbury last round - but that's a result nearly every team has experienced this year.

They were blown off the paddock in the first 20 minutes against Canterbury, but they more than held their own for the remainder of the match.

Coming into last round's loss to the Bulldogs, Bennett's men had won consecutive games against the Sea Eagles, Warriors and Raiders to catapult themselves into finals contention.

Neither side last night played with the poise and discipline needed in finals football in the early exchanges. It was an error-riddled start to the match, with both sides showing little respect for the ball.

Darius Boyd sparked the Knights into gear when he put Tyrone Roberts through a yawning gap, paving the way for Jarrod Mullen to stroll under the posts untouched to register the opening points.

Cronulla's last-tackle options, especially early in the contest, would have infuriated coach Shane Flanagan.

The Sharks had a number of attacking sets to notch up their first points in the opening half, but if they weren't coughing up possession, they weren't asking any questions of the Knights defence.

Cronulla didn't need to do much defending on their line, but that didn't stop the Knights from penetrating.

Just like their first try, the Knights began their raid from inside their own half to take a 12-0 lead after Mullen sliced between Jeff Robson and Colin Best to put Dane Gagai in for his fourth try of the season.

It wasn't only Mullen's running game causing the Sharks concerns, using his boot to supply Boyd with only his second try of the year just after half-time.

Trailing 18-0, Jeremy Smith tried to inspire his team with some mongrel and aggression.

He engaged in a fiery battle with veteran prop Willie Mason, who was later placed on report for a high shot on Robson.

NEWCASTLE 26 (D Boyd D Gagai J Mullen K Naiqama A Uate tries T Roberts 3 goals) bt CRONULLA 4 (J Williams try) at Hunter Stadium. Referee: Matt Cecchin, Gavin Morris. Crowd: 15,394.