Faltering Rabbitohs' season on the line against buoyant Knights

It's been a little over three months since the Rabbitohs sat at the head of the NRL table.

Having walked out of Stadium Australia with a comfortable 20-0 win against the Wests Tigers, moving to first place ahead of the Broncos due to a superior for and against, and boasting impressive wins over the Broncos, Storm, and Panthers in the weeks' prior.

That brutal start of the year, which saw the Bunnies have two matches against both Penrith and Melbourne, and games away to Cronulla and Brisbane all in the first ten weeks, was supposed to be their sternest test. They passed with flying colours - and few could have predicted what would happen over the remaining chunk of the season to date.

Latrell Mitchell's 'week to week' calf injury ended up lingering for almost three months, the team list was repeatedly disrupted by Origin selections and injuries, and even when they looked to be relatively back to full strength, their past month of footy has had two unconvincing wins against last and second-last, and two bad losses against teams they'd already beaten earlier in the season.

A season with so much promise may end up collapsing in a heap. The Rabbitohs haven't had their first XVII all available for a single game this year, and that will continue unless they play a finals game, given Tom Burgess will miss the rest of the regular season through suspension. But they have to get to that finals spot first.

The reasons for their decline aren't just down to Mitchell's absence. A complete lack of application in defence has been noticeable, shipping easy points week after week, while their ball handling reached an embarrassing new low in that win against the Dragons, where two St George Illawarra tries came directly as a result of turning the ball over from the kick-off.

You just have to scroll through their completion rates during this lean period to see how bad it's gotten, with sub 70 percent marks in multiple fixtures.

Plenty of fans and pundits, myself included, thought the problems would iron themselves out when Mitchell returned. And while he himself has played well enough since returning, it hasn't been the triumphant home stretch that many envisioned. Cody Walker has had his leanest period of the season, as has Keaon Koloamatangi - which is bizarre given how well both of them played in the Origin decider for the Blues. Even Cam Murray, arguably the best forward in the game, hasn't been himself in recent times.

There's a realistic scenario, and a nightmare for Souths fans, that the Roosters game in the final round of the season could be a de facto play-in game for both teams. But a lot of that depends on the Knights (and a couple of others).

There's an old saying that when Souths are going well, rugby league is going well - but if there's one team that adage is more applicable to than any other, it's the Knights, whose fan base would show up in droves for a bus stop opening if it was painted red and blue.

After a poor showing against the understrength Panthers - which prompted disbelief from many, including Storm captain Christian Welch - the Knights were 14th on the ladder with five wins, one draw, and nine losses. All the promise that the Adam O'Brien era had brought with it, after suffering through a multi-year post-Wayne Bennett hangover, was going to waste.

But they've not lost a game since, getting immediate revenge over Welch and the rest of the Storm when they played shortly after, putting on a show against the Raiders in Canberra, and taking care of business against some of the competition's lesser lights in the remaining games of what is now a six-match winning streak, which leaves a postseason berth in their own hands.

The mood is so high in Newcastle right now, with Kalyn Ponga playing career best football, a backline that can score from anywhere and a forward pack that won't take a backwards step against anyone, that the predominant feeling isn't one of hope, but one of regret. Many have pondered that had the first two months of the season not been squandered with the ill-fated experiment of putting Ponga in the halves, that they may have picked up another couple of victories and would be challenging for the four, not the eight.

But there's no sense looking backwards. Only forwards. This Sunday's match was sold out a week in advance, and Old Boy's Day the following week against Cronulla will follow suit.

The Rabbitohs are a point behind the Knights, albeit with one extra win and a bye in hand. A win here likely seals a top eight spot and leaves them with an outside chance of the top four.

Newcastle have everything to play for, and two ferocious home crowds to support them over the next two weeks against two teams right next to them on the table. Splitting those two games would be enough, assuming they can take care of business against the Dragons in the final round. Winning all three would be enough for a home final.

It's obviously far from the biggest sporting event on Sunday afternoon, but it's a game that will mean the world to both teams. If Souths want to salvage anything from a season that started so promisingly, they need to complete well, execute well, and not let that fearsome Knights backline kill them out wide. But with the way the Knights are playing right now, all they need is the opening few bars of 'Better' by The Screaming Jets, and the rest may well take care of itself.