Newcastle Knights were handed a big reality check, falling to the lowly North Queensland Cowboys 32-20 in a big upset in Townsville on Saturday.
The Cowboys went into the game having conceded 99 points in their past three matches but dominated the Knights in the opening 40 minutes to lead 26-0 at the break to virtually assure themselves of victory.
While they came back to win the second half 20-6, the damage had already been done for the Knights, whose first half performance was their worst of the season under coach Adam O'Brien.
Their ball handling was poor, they gave away cheap penalties and were completely out-muscled up the middle.
Chief attacking playmakers Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga weren't in the game until it was as good as over.
The defeat saw the Knights drop from second to fifth on the ladder with tough games against Manly and the Eels in the next two weeks.
The Knights had a couple of chances early in the game but from that point on, it was all the Cowboys in the first half.
From the moment Justin O'Neill crossed out wide in the 9th minute for a 6-0 lead, the home side took total control.
Off the back of three errors in the opening 10 minutes and a couple of cheap penalties given away, it was 8-0 after 16 minutes and 14-0 midway through the half when fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow backed up a Reece Robson bust up the middle.
The Knights forwards, so dominant in their most recent win over the Broncos, were getting an absolute bath in Townsville.
Newcastle's worst fears were realised just four minutes later when Jake Clifford beat four defenders - Lachlan Fitzgibbon, David Klemmer, Kalyn Ponga and Kurt Mann - to cross for his side's third try and a 20-0 lead.
Winger Kyle Feldt rounded out the first half scoring for the Cowboys when he out jumped Edrick Lee to score and convert his own try for a 26-0 halftime advantage.
Tex Hoy scored his first NRL try just minutes into the second half to get the Knights on the boards after great work from Herman Ese'ese and Fitzgibbon.
But it was cancelled out when Coen Hess responded with a try of his own only a few minutes later.
At 32-6, it looked dour for the Knights but to their credit, they fought their way back.
Hymel Hunt crossed after quick hands with 27 minutes remaining and then Kurt Mann stormed over for a deserved try just five minutes later to narrow the gap to 32-16.
Mann was again one of his side's best while Herman Ese'ese and Jacob Saifiti were strong off the bench.