IT was an image that defined the nadir of Newcastle’s worst-ever season.
The date was May 15, 2016, and the Knights had just been slaughtered 62-0 by eventual premiers Cronulla in front of 16,150 shell-shocked fans at McDonald Jones Stadium – their biggest-ever loss on home turf.
Adding to the despair, Newcastle fullback Dane Gagai took the field knowing that his grandmother had died that morning.
At full-time, he broke down in tears and was consoled by back-rower Tariq Sims.
The Knights had hit rock-bottom, but at least players like Gagai and Sims would help them in the long fight to regain credibility.
Or saw they hoped.
Just three games later, Sims had joined St George Illawarra after a shock mid-season transfer.
Fifteen months later, Gagai had followed him out the back door, signing with South Sydney after earning Queensland and Australian jerseys during his six seasons at Newcastle.
On Saturday the departed duo will give the Knights a reminder of what they let slip through their fingers when they clash head-on in the sudden-death final at ANZ Stadium.
Sims, who will play on St George Illawarra’s left edge, represented NSW Origin earlier in the year and marked his first play-off appearance since 2014 with three blockbusting tries against Brisbane last weekend – taking him to 10 for the season.
Gagai, right-side centre for the Rabbitohs, also scored in the heart-breaking 29-28 loss to Melbourne in the opening round of the finals.
Knights fans are no doubt noting such performances and thinking they would still look good in red and blue.
The full circumstances that prompted both to leave are probably known only by the players, their agents and Newcastle officials.
Sims had been hoping to stay at the Knights, but they were unable, or unwilling, to match a three-year offer from the Dragons he described as “too good to knock back”.
As he told the Newcastle Herald last year: “I learned a lot of lessons at the Knights, a lot of hard lessons that I don't take for granted. When times are tough, I look back at those days when we were battling and copping it from every angle. It definitely has made me a better player.”
Sims said he was satisfied he gave 100 per cent for the Knights until the end. In his final four games before leaving, he averaged 109 metres in attack and 32 tackles. “I was very happy with my game at the Knights,'' he said. “I was making the most tackles I’d ever made and the most metres in each game.”
Gagai, meanwhile, described leaving the Knights as “one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life”, but it is understood he was frustrated that Newcastle appeared more interested in chasing big-name imports than extending his deal. Souths, in contrast, rolled out the red carpet.
Knights coach Nathan Brown told the Herald earlier this year that Newcastle made Gagai “a very good offer” to stay.
“He was at the stage of his career where he just wanted to win some games ... it was the three wooden spoon seasons,” he said. “It just wore him down but more importantly at the time, he probably couldn’t see it changing here in the short term.”