WAYNE Bennett faces the greatest challenge of his illustrious coaching career in trying to salvage Newcastle’s NRL season before it is officially declared a write-off.
Saturday’s dismal 32-16 loss to Canberra at Hunter Stadium left the Knights 14th on the ladder after winning just four of their first 13 games.
They have now lost five successive fixtures by a combined tally of 162-72, and if Penrith beat the Warriors tonight, the pre-season premiership favourites will sit above only hapless Parramatta on the points table.
To reach the play-offs, which are now a distant speck on the horizon, Newcastle will probably need to win eight of their remaining 11 regular-season games.
If they continue to play like they did against Canberra, they will be lucky to win again this year.
With all due respect, the Raiders are far from the most coveted scalp in the competition.
They arrived at Turton Road two positions below Newcastle after losing five of their previous six games and with speculation mounting that coach David Furner was facing the axe.
They had not won in Newcastle since 2005.
Yet from the opening exchanges they dominated, racking up a 14-0 lead that the home side were never likely to overhaul.
In a season that is increasingly starting to resemble a train wreck, this was surely Newcastle’s lowest ebb.
It was not just their worst loss this year.
In the circumstances, it must rank as one of the most depressing efforts since the club was founded in 1988.
Sadly for the 15,114 spectators, many of whom appeared torn between hanging around to boo the players off the field or heading home early, there can be no guarantees it is rock bottom, or even close.
As Bennett noted afterwards: ‘‘I don’t know whether we’re going backwards or forwards right now.
‘‘We’re not going anywhere, to be honest with you.’’
Bennett might be rugby league’s most successful coach, with seven premierships to his name, but he has surely never encountered a conundrum such as this.
At both Brisbane and St George Illawarra, where he was surrounded by superstars, success became his trademark.
Naturally when he joined the Knights, their fans had similarly grandiose expectations.
It was not a question of whether Bennett could steer Newcastle to a premiership, it was a matter of how many he would win during his four-year tenure.
But with each passing week, it is becoming increasingly obvious that dynasties are not built in a day.
And now the question the Novocastrian faithful are screaming is, what has gone wrong?
Why aren’t this team playing for Bennett? Last year they busted their guts for Rick Stone.
It appears not even Bennett has an answer, although my theory is that there is a glaring lack of synergy between coach and players.
When Bennett first signed with Newcastle, the players were excited. Why wouldn’t they be?
Everybody wants to win a grand final. Nobody knows better than Bennett how do get there.
Yet after the great man’s first day at training, he told the media: ‘‘Realistically, a premiership may not be forthcoming in the near future.’’
Bennett was clearly trying to keep a lid on the hype. He has never been one to talk himself or his team up.
Perhaps he figured that was pressure his players could do without.
Since then Bennett has delivered a consistent message at his press conferences.
His team are a work in progress. He is not interested in running eighth or ninth.
Meanwhile, experienced players have been dropped to reserve grade, recalled, and then dropped again.
Willie Mason and Dane Gagai were added to Bennett’s roster, apparently out of desperation.
Reading between the lines, Bennett simply does not rate some of his players.
And they know it.
Finally we arrive at last week’s unsettling revelations in the Herald that the Knights are trying to offload Junior Sa’u and Wes Naiqama – and possibly others – despite having binding contracts for next season.
Sa’u and Naiqama, who last year signed extensions for two and three years respectively with Bennett’s approval, are entitled to be filthy, as are their teammates. Given that the stench of last year’s cleanout still lingers, some are now asking whether a contract at Newcastle is worth the paper on which it is written.
And if Bennett needs any advice on how Knights players respond to turmoil and contractual uncertainty, perhaps he could ask his old mate Brian Smith to recollect the events of 2007.
As one source told me last week, when discussing the Naiqama-Sa’u situation: ‘‘Wayne’s changed his mind about a few of them.’’
It appears the feeling could well be mutual.