The Canberra Raiders are in the grand final.
They defeated the Rabbitohs 16-12 to get there. They did it with one the best performances by a single forward you will ever see. They did with one of the most stunning defensive efforts in rugby league history. They did it despite not being at their best, because that’s what happens in finals football. Teams take your weaknesses and shine a spotlight on them. They take your strengths and find wrinkles to exploit. And it’s up to you to find a way.
The Canberra Raiders found a way.
This game was always going to be harder than the lead up may have led one to believe. Expectations are a motherfucker, and for a side with a relative lack of experience, it was always going to be tough to perform when everyone thought you were going to do it easy. Wayne Bennett sides do not lie down, but for some reason everyone expected them to. It freed up Souths to play what was in front of them, while Canberra battled 25 years of pain.
Moreover, Souths were bad last week, but they eliminated many of their problems with the personnel decisions they made in the lead up to the game. Out was George Burgess and Roberts, Sam Burgess shifted to the middle. It fixed their right edge defence putting the more laterally agile Ethan Lowe alongside Adam Reynolds.
A more stout defence allowed the Bunnies to play through the middle, kick for reward, and pressure the Raiders defence to crack. It was a perfect example of an experienced Wayne Bennett side playing intelligent football to crack a defence through sustained pressure. It did once early and it wasn’t pretty. By the time it cracked again it was too late.
In the first half the Raiders defence was far from perfect. The Bunnies mercilessly targeted the Raiders right edge which has been a defensive strength all year. BJ Leilua and Aidan Sezer got into some bad positions, and it took try-saving tackles from Josh Hodgson and Sezer to keep a clean sheet. Both were full on balls-to-the-wall efforts, taking down bigger men as they were practically ready to score.
They were also examples of the physicality of the Raiders defence. The first up contact of the Canberra tackling was substantial, and forced errors through sheer contact. Hodgson did it to save a try, and did it to create one – forcing an error from Adam Douhie that Jarrod Croker pounced on. It was matched minutes later when Josh Papalii and Dunamis Lui held out Tevita Tatola when they shouldn’t have been able to. Add it into this critical one-on-one strips from Hodgson, Bateman and Sia, the hurt that Joe Tapine put on Douhie, and you can see why Souths had such trouble scoring.
When the Bunnies finally did score on the left it was so easy it was surprising. Sliding on your goal line rarely ends well, and the Raiders goal line defence has been so incredible this year largely because they’ve avoided this as much as possible.
While the right was targeted in the first half the Green Machine managed to hold on. In the second half they went beyond holding on to seeming completely unfazed by the Bunnies attack. The middle held, and it sent Souths pushing wide for points. More than once they got caught running east-west late in the set, unable to find a gap or defender to exploit. They shifted left and Sezer and Bateman was there to hold them out. They shifted right and Jack Wighton was constantly in the face of whoever Adam Reynolds was passing the ball to. Jarrod Croker overcame his early lack of agressoon to be part of several important tackles on the goal line.
The Raiders were so impeccable in their defensive performance that despite spending much of second half defending, they were almost untroubled in the last ten minutes when down a player. Each player was incredible in their own right at this point; huge tackles were made across the ground. Croker defended without a winger outside him, and was not fazed – snaffling attackers before they could get the ball to the always unmarked winger outside him.
Souths kept ending sets with perfect kicks that created repeat sets. By the end of the game both sides had broadly completed at the same rate (80 per cent for Souths, 77 for Canberra), but the Bunnies had a full ten sets more than the Raiders. And it felt that most of these were on the Raiders line. Four seperate times in the game the Bunnies spent multiple sets on the Raiders line and it resulted in points once early, and once when the game was practically dusted.
This would be a good display of defence if it occurred on a couple of sets. It would be impressive in a regular season game against good opposition. But the Raiders pulled out this exemplary defence in the biggest game of their season. Of their lifetimes. There’s a conversation to be had about their offensive execution under pressure possibly being the result of not handling the moment (and we’ll get to that execution later) but you cannot question their decision making or effort in defence.
With the ball it was all about Josh Papalii. It’s an astounding thought that 18 carries for 179 metres understates a man’s impact but goddamnit Papa was more than that. The Raiders struggled for clarity and connection early and so often Papa provided them with direction.
When Souths owned a ruck or a set – it happened a lot – the ball ended up in his hands, tasked with cleaning up the mess. He simply charged harder, charged smarter, dragging so many defenders with him, nearly always bending the defensive line. He played 71 minutes – an incredible amount for a front rower – and for every single minute was the best player on the field.
And then with the game on the line, right in flipping front of me, he charged back on the angle, just as he’d done against the Warriors in the last round of the regular season. There were enough defenders there to stop him. They should have stopped him. Papa had already made thirty plus tackles and should have been exhausted. It didn’t matter.
Build the man a statue.
The Raiders certainly did it tough. They were outgunned by 200 metres for the game but had more post contact metres (449 to 434) despite their paucity of possession (Souths has 56 per cent of the ball for the game). A slow ruck and a Canberra forward pack exhausted from so much tackling made it difficult and the young forwards struggled. Joe Tapine only had 4 carries. Corey Horsburgh just 8. Lui averaged less than six metres a run. Sia Soliola (10 for 103m) and John Bateman (13 for 108m) were the only other forwards to crack 100 metres, though much of BJ Leilua’s 103 were from him taking hit ups essentially as a spare prop. It was a perfect example of why he’s so important to this group despite his lack of match fitness. Papalii and Sia couldn’t be there for every hit up; the young forwards were struggling in a tough game. BJ simply filled the gap.
While Josh Hodgson didn’t have a flashy impact, he played hard and smart too. With a ruck that the referees allowed to operate at snails pace he still managed to find metres for his big men. And he kicked beautifully, finding grass on long kicks that dragged the Raiders off their line when they’d spent way too long there. His defensive efforts we mentioned, but let’s mention them again because they were incredible.
The halves were not perfect. As predicted Wighton ran at Adam Reynolds all game, and found himself a bucketload of metres. However the lack of ball in good positions made it hard for him to build pressure on the left. The Raiders had plans to test that edge, but couldn’t begin to build on plays. Wighton played a face ball on a few occasions to keep the defence honest, but only got rare occasions to push wide. On one of those he and Whitehead combined to put Croker in a bit of space. The Raiders didn’t score, but the ensuing kick from Sezer was contested, and somehow Wighton dropped the ball onto his foot and recovered to score.
Wighton’s short kicking game was not at its finest. He found 7 tackle sets more than he found repeats. Sezer’s kicking was more targeted, but he didn’t run the ball nearly enough, and in the first half he was unable to produce anything slick with Bateman outside him. They kept turning the ball inside, a tactic that has worked all season, but when they tried to push wider, the lack of threat from Sezer meant Bateman and BJ were always faced with multiple defenders in their way. In the first half they looked unsure of how to insert themselves into a game that mattered so much. They’ll need to be better in the grand final.
In. The. Grand. Final.
I can’t believe I’m even writing that.
The Canberra Raiders are going to be in the final game of the season. After 25 years in the rugby league wilderness, the Green Machine are playing for a short at immortality. They’ll have to be better, but that’s a challenge they’ve met every week in the completion. Each time they’ve found a way.
I genuinely don’t care who they play. They’ll be underdogs regardless and that will suit them just fine. After being told all week they were going to the grand final they still had to go out an earn it. They did it with one of the most stunning defensive efforts I have seen, riding the back of one of the best performance by a prop in history.
When they tell the story of this game in the years to come they will talk of a defence that held rock solid. Of a team that was unfazed by repeat set after repeat set. A tale of a team that has made being down a player to an art form. Of Josh Papalii refusing to be tackled.
The Canberra Raiders, the people’s team, are going back to the grand final.
They deserve nothing less.