The Canberra Raiders 22-12 victory over Penrith Panthers wasn’t pretty. It was hard fought, a proper Rugby League Final. It was earnt in the middle by a forward pack that raged and rampaged throughout the match. The Raiders dominated for 50 minutes and survived 20 minutes of mayhem. Now all that stands between them and a grand final appearance is 80 minutes in the cauldron that is AAMI park in Melbourne.
For a side that finished second and lost in the first week by just two points, it was a surprise to see the Raiders only considered notional favourites at home. The commentariat had largely written them off, and with the expected exclusion of Josh Hodgon only the true Raiders faithful were expecting victory.
But Hodgson somehow recovered, as did Blake Austin, and the Raiders started their strongest side of the season, including Paul Vaughan for the injured Clay Priest.
The Panthers were expected to do two things. With the ball they were going to move east-west in an attempt to make the big Raiders forward pack tired. In defence they were going to rush up, stopping the Raiders forwards before they could get momentum, and the Raiders backs before they could get space.
But instead for the first 50 minutes of the game the Raiders forwards dominated. The defence swallowed the Panthers attack. Sia Soliola should be singled out for his defence early in the game. On almost every tackle he dragged the ABC defenders up quickly, stopping the Panthers attackers before they could move either forwards or sideways. This set the tone early, and reduced the ability of the Panthers to implement their side-to-side strategy. Joseph Tapine and Josh Papalii followed suit, and for a good part of the game the Panthers couldn’t get anything going because they were smothered.
With the ball the smart work of Hodgson, and the excellent work of the big men meant metres were found despite some enthusiastic defence from Penrith. The Panthers ‘A’ defender rushed out of the line in an attempt to stop the Raiders first ball carrier. With Hodgson in the ruck the Raiders found space a step to the side of this defender – Josh Papalii (16 runs for 155m) and Elliot Whitehead (18 for 150m) were the prime beneficiaries. As the Panthers tired, there was more space around the ruck and Junior Paulo (15 for 140m), Shannon Boyd (12 for 108m) and Paul Vaughan (9 for 108m) got stuck in.
This level of domination in the middle of the park would turn into piles of points in any other week. But this is finals football. Points should not come easily. But the good work of the spine ensured that the Raiders kept putting points on the board. In the 12th minute Blake Austin saw the defence rush up outside him, took a step off his right foot and found his way over the line.
In the 35th minute, the Raiders moved to the blind side, and Whitehead’s importance as a ball-playing second-rower came into view when he put BJ Leilua through a hole. A grubber for Jordan Rapana and it was 12-0.
Then early in the second half, the Raiders spine seemed to put the game beyond the reach of the Panthers. A well worked move, Hodgson sending his patented two-prop run as decoys through the middle, immediately created an overlap for Aidan Sezer, who found Jack Wighton in the line. A further short ball and Jarrod Croker seemingly sealed the game for the Raiders.
Up until this point the Raiders had been the smartest side on the park. Hodgson’s kicking out of dummy-half had been exemplary, pinning the Panthers in their corners at every opportunity. Indeed, it was his stunning grubber that had earnt the Raiders the repeat set that had resulted in their third try. Austin and Sezer had their moments, each bending and breaking the line when the Panthers defence had rushed up on their more fancied outside men. Wighton pushed up into play, probing the line at every opportunity. The Raiders had played smarter, harder and were handsomely rewarded.
And then for a brief moment they stopped. The Panthers started making metres hand over fist. The Raiders couldn’t find a way to finish a set, to get to a kick. They dropped the ball coming off their line – the culprits inexplicably Soliola and Whitehead. They couldn’t get off their own line in defence and offence. The Panthers scored twice in seven minutes. Both tries were opportune, stringing together multiple offloads when plays seemed to be dying. But the Raiders seemed to be putting a spot in the preliminary final at risk while they failed to play smart.
But just when the Raiders of old seemed to be emerging, a helpful penalty dragged the Raiders out of their own half, and the Raiders took some cheap points on offer and they closed out the game ensconsed in the Panthers red-zone.
And so the Raiders came away with an important victory, not just in the context of this season. This young side is learning to win tough finals games, something they intend to do a lot over the next few years. Yes they were meant to win, but against a side in red-hot form with nothing to lose the Raiders looked like the adult side. Raiders fans have every right to be excited – such mature football portends good things in this season and those following.
They aimed up against the Panthers, but they’ll be faced with an even greater challenge next weekend in Melbourne. If they bring their attitude and performance from the first 50 minutes of the game they might just have a shot. Another healthy week in the ankle of Hodgson and in the hand of Austin will give them even more punch next week.
 The first 3 defenders on each side of the ruck
 This was not the first time Wighton had inserted himself into the line. He popped up on both sides of the ruck a few times tonight, providing valuable support to the play-makers.