CANBERRA hammered the first nail in St George Illawarra's finals coffin with a 36-14 win over over the Dragons at WIN Stadium on Sunday night.
It looked all too easy for the visitors until Nick Cotric's 59th minute send-off for a nasty looking spear tackle on Tim Lafai midway through the second half briefly threw a spanner in the works.
It was Cotric's first game back from an ankle injury that kept him out of the second two matches of the Origin series, but the first send-off for a dangerous throw since 1995 leaves him facing a much longer stint on the sidelines.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart was adamant post-match that it should not be the case, promising to fight if the match review panel comes down hard on his centre.
"If you call that a spear then you've only just started watching this game," Stuart said.
"Whoever thinks it's a spear tackle doesn't know the game of rugby league. It was unintentional, it got away on him a little but and I understand that, that's an accident.
"[Lafai] played on, Nick's got no malice in him at all, he's a strong kid and it's got away on him and it ended up, I believe, with him on the wrong end of it in regards to being sent off."
It's a headache for Stuart but its nothing compared to those of Dragons counterpart Paul McGregor, following his side's eighth loss in 10 outings.
The home side never really looked in the contest, trailing 16-0 at the break after making six errors and missing a staggering 30 tackles to just nine for the visitors.
Four-pointers to Bailey Simmonson and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in the opening five minutes of the second stanza effectively putting the match to bed.
Even the Dragons first response, a try to Korbin Sims, quickly turned sour when Corey Norman to inexplicably cannoned the conversion attempt into the upright from virtually in front of the posts.
It summed up their night and a performance McGregor couldn't have sugar-coated if he tried - which he didn't.
"I'm not going to defend that performance at all, it was the worst performance of the season," McGregor said.
"There's no excuse. We've had our distractions this year but we had enough talent on the field today to win that game and we didn't go close.
"It was a performance we've all got to take ownership of, the coaches and especially myself because I'm at the forefront of that. We've really got to own up that, to a man, because it's not acceptable.
"You can call it desire, attitude, effort but it comes down to pride in your own performance. The one-on-one missed tackles... all that stuff you can control yourself,.
"There were fundamental errors, penalties, just basics that are letting us down at the moment that shouldn't be happening in first grade."
It leaves them two wins out of the top eight and needing to win seven of their last eight game to reach the finals.
That will become a moot point should they drop their next two games against Penrith - currently riding a six-game winning streak - and Souths.
The remain in the hunt but McGregor admits the loss put a big dent in those hopes.
"If we put our best performance in we can win games of footy and we can win a few in a row to play some finals," McGregor said.
"If we're healthy, look out, but we've got a long way to go after tonight because that was a disappointing performance.
"We had all the guys back from Origin, we had Tariq [Sims] back. We put in a good effort the week before and only lost by a penalty goal to Melbourne.
"We've got James coming back next week, Gareth probably the week after. We had every [reason] to go after the game tonight and we just didn't."
The club's injury woes also deepened further, with Jeremy Latimore injuring an already heavily strapped knee and being helped from the field midway through the first half.
Jarrod Croker opened the scoring with a fifth-minute penalty goal after the Dragons were pinged for three straight infringements.
Cotric grabbed the first try five minutes later after back to back errors from the hosts and Croker followed up, brushing off Euan Aitken en route to the line and a 10-0 lead after 16 minutes.
Things worsened for the hosts when Joseph Tapine crossed from close-range three minutes before the break. Croker converted to give his side a 16-0 cushion at halftime.
Simmonson crossed two minutes after the resumption and Nicoll-Klokstad followed suit three minutes later as the lead ballooned to 26-0.
Sims barged across at the other end and the hosts had a glimmer of hope when Norman Luciano Leilua across three minutes later.
Back-up, back-up kicker Lafai nailed the goal to cut the margin back to 16 before being dumped on his head by Cotric.
He was thankfully not injured but referee Ashley Klein didn't hesitate in giving him his marching orders.
It did nothing to slow the Raiders up, with Siliva Havili bulldozing his way over two minutes later to again blow out the margin.
Nicoll-Klokstad's double was icing on the cake, with Matt Dufty's 90-metre dash for a try two minutes from time little consolation on a sorry night for the Dragons.