IT has been a while coming, but the Newcastle Knights have finally hit rock bottom.
Friday night's 36-22 loss to Canberra at an arctic GIO Stadium, Newcastle's 11th in their past 12 games, will leave them last on the NRL ladder, with just eight games to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon
Heading into round 18, the Knights were 15th, ahead of only Wests Tigers.
But the two points the Tigers collect for the bye this weekend will leapfrog them above Newcastle, courtesy of superior for-and-against statistics.
Last night's scoreline left Newcastle with the worst defensive record in the competition. They have conceded 400 points, 32 more than their nearest rivals.
It has been a fall from grace that would have seemed inexplicable after round four, when Newcastle were unbeaten competition leaders and paying $251 with bookmakers to finish last.
"We're down on confidence,'' Knights coach Rick Stone admitted afterwards.
"We're struggling to know how to win a game at the moment, and the way we've started the last couple of games doesn't give you confidence, that's for sure.''
Stone said the Raiders deserved credit for dominating from the outset but Newcastle sealed their own fate with a lack of intensity and line speed.
"They certainly flew out of the blocks, but I think we made things a bit easier for them,'' he said.
Bolstered by the return of seasoned players Jarrod Mullen (toe), Tyrone Roberts (ankle), Kade Snowden (suspension), Jeremy Smith (sternum) and David Fa'alogo (hamstring), the Knights were hoping to reignite their campaign with a boilover in the national capital. Instead they were blown away by a Blake Austin blitz that yielded the mercurial five-eighth three tries in the opening 15 minutes.
Having scored a double in Canberra's 44-22 win at Hunter Stadium five weeks ago, Austin continued his hot streak by drawing first blood in the second minute.
The home team spun the ball to the right edge, where they created an overlap that exposed James McManus, defending at left centre, and Sione Mata'utia, switched to the wing.
Austin backed up on in the inside and dived over next to the posts.
Six minutes later, the Country Origin representative was again rewarded for his support play when prop Paul Vaughan burst through the centre of Newcastle's ruck.
Austin was immediately on the scene to collect the offload, before beating Knights skipper Kurt Gidley pointlessly with a sensational sidestep.
It was the 24-year-old's third brace of the season and 12th try of this breakout campaign.
Seven minutes later he completed one of the fastest hat-tricks in recent memory when Canberra hooker Josh Hodgson stab-kicked from dummy-half and Austin was first to the ball.
"Blake will keep improving as the little things in his game do,'' Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said.
"We all know he can attack. He was wonderful in that area tonight.
"The good ones always turn up where the ball is. And that's what happens with Blake, because he's a good player.
"But the other areas of his game that he's working on and I'm impressed with are the little things, like his defence and his work off the football.''
When Raiders skipper Jarrod Croker scored in the 24th minute, and then kicked his fourth conversion of the night, the scoreline read 24-0 to the home team and Newcastle were left with the forlorn task of trying to salvage some respectability.
"It's not NRL standard what we managed in that first 20 minutes,'' Stone said.
"Realistically, the intent, the numbers in the tackle, the control of the tackle, and being able to win it and do it again, just wasn't even close.''
The visitors replied with a try before half-time, but it was no work of art.
Veteran lock Smith, who returned to action off the bench, flung a desperate pass in the 31st minute as he was tackled and McManus gathered in the bouncing ball to score.
Trailing 24-4, the Knights needed to be the first team to score after the break but instead Canberra's Queensland Origin back-rower Josh Papalii crashed over in the 43rd minute.
Papalii was in for his second seven minutes later when he won the race to pounce on a Sam Williams grubber kick.
Adding to Newcastle's woes, back-rower Tariq Sims and halfback Tyrone Roberts were placed on report in the 39th minute for an alleged "crusher'' tackle on Austin, and Mata'utia was replaced in the second half after a head knock.
Two tries by winger Akuila Uate and one from Snowden offered some consolation for the Knights, who dominated possession, especially after half-time.
one from Snowden offered some consolation for the Knights.