KNIGHTS coach Adam O'Brien says his players paid no attention to the critics who wrote them off in the pre-season, and they won't be listening now to those who start singing their praises.
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After comprehensive wins to open the season against Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers, Newcastle are surprise competition leaders as they prepare for Saturday's clash with reigning premiers Penrith in Bathurst.
After placing seventh in their first two campaigns under O'Brien, the Knights identified that their consistency needed to improve if they were to evolve into genuine challengers for the title.
And O'Brien says that means approaching every game with the same steely mindset, regardless of previous results, the opposition or what others might be saying.
"One thing we've been really strong on is not listening to the outside noise, because it hasn't been positive all summer," O'Brien told the Newcastle Herald.
"So now that we've strung a couple of games together, you can't have it both ways.
"We can't say: 'Don't listen to that, it's irrelevant', but then start listening to it now that we've won a couple of games. You just can't have it that way.
"So we just look at is as it's about us getting better at our stuff every day and making sure that our culture holds there."
O'Brien said instilling an uncompromising mentality in his troops was a gradual, ongoing process. The Knights had not reached the finals in six consecutive seasons before his arrival.
"We've worked really hard over the last couple of seasons on that culture, and it was always going to take time," he said.
"You have to build it every day.
"It's easy to lose, but it takes time to create. I'd like to think we're on the right path, but we have to stay on it now."
Like Newcastle, the Panthers are unbeaten in their two starts this year and could potentially be boosted on Saturday by the return of champion halfback Nathan Cleary.
The NSW Origin playmaker has been sidelined since undergoing off-season shoulder surgery, but has been named in jersey No.24 and could yet be a late inclusion.
O'Brien admitted the Knights have "a challenge in front of us" but was hopeful they can carry form and momentum into Saturday's showdown.
"The confidence has shown in parts of our game," he said.
"The guys are willing to try some stuff that's paid off, and we just seem really connected together.
"We seem like a happy bunch, and I think the guys are physically and mentally strong, as well."
O'Brien reiterated that it was only early days but said Newcastle's two wins so far had been "a step in the right direction".
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