THREE years ago there was cause for optimism.
Port Kembla were competitive in Group Seven - and despite some ill-discipline and being on the wrong side of penalty counts - there was reason to believe the Blacks' future was bright.
In April of 2016, first and reserve grade had won on the same day for the first time in nine years and they were even an outside finals hope, for a week or two.
Coach James Storer, the three-time Fijian World Cup player, had instilled faith in the young players, both on and off the field.
Storer spoke of team prayer sessions, as much as training sessions and helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds on the right path.
This was a project bigger than what the scoreboard reflected on a weekend.
Storer is an inspirational role model for those who have to work hard for everything. But even as Port offered hope, the club was fraying at the seams.
Too few around Storer, the volunteers, had too much to do. There were murmurs of Visa troubles among recruited players, others drifted away from the club.
Port Kembla president Ben Fera told Fairfax Media this week some of their most talented were lured to other clubs with greater financial means.
Before the end of 2017, the club was on its knees again. Port Kembla withdrew from Group Seven completely in 2018, having joined the South Coast competition on a "loan" agreement from Illawarra in 2013.
It's all part of a more than decade-long saga for Port Kembla.
What happens next depends on who you talk to.
Port Kembla officials believe they are being pushed over a cliff, by the refusal to allow them to play in Group Seven in reserve grade.
They’ve recruited Albion Park-Oak Flats great Dean Gray as coach, on the condition they play on the South Coast.
Illawarra's board is adamant the club needs to come "home" so they can help sort the mess out and rebuild Port Kembla from the ground up.
That the agreement to play in Group Seven was only ever while they could fulfill first grade obligations.
Offers of having surplus players from Collegians – now propping up the Port Kembla Leagues Club – have fallen on deaf ears.
Long-standing friendships have become strained by the stand-off.
The most likely outcome, whether a decision is made to wind up the club or not, is a dramatic overhaul this year with a view to forming an Illawarra third grade 'Shield' team in 2020.
If that cannot be achieved, it’s likely Port – with a legacy of 22 premierships in 105 years, the last in 1965 – will be gone for good.
But there are plenty who have never returned once they've stared into the abyss.
Wollongong, even with the university connection, folded.
Other Country Rugby League competitions have suffered badly by the common symptoms - young men working on weekends, finding other interests where they don't have to commit to training twice a week, or leaving their home towns for the big smoke.
As a young sports writer covering the Riverina-based Group Nine, I've seen Harden-Murrumburrah – the junior club of Group Seven-winning Shellharbour coach Abed Atallah – as well as Adelong-Batlow and more recently Tumbarumba fall.
Others like Junee, who once enlisted the legendary Laurie Daley in a save the club campaign, are survivors.
Shellharbour have felt the financial pressure after biting off as much as they could chew by becoming the St George Illawarra feeder club in the now NSW Premiership, then joining Illawarra, before returning to Group Seven, where they lifted the trophy in September.
Berkeley's return to Illawarra first grade has been something of a success story, but the Eagles also operate on a bigger budget than Port Kembla, given their leagues club backing by NRL premiers the Roosters.
This week Illawarra chairman Ian "Chook" Neill went to address Port Kembla players of their plans for the future.
Just a handful turned up.
A sad rugby league story, with time running out to avoid the saddest ending.