Can. You. Believe. It?
After twenty five years the Canberra Raiders are back in the biggest game of the year. It still doesn’t feel quite real to me, to be perfectly honest, but we now have less than a week to come to grips with the reality and enormity of it all.
Can we talk about 2019 folks? The Raiders were the only team to keep three opponents scoreless. The only team to beat Melbourne at AAMI Park twice. A team that went from super flash attacking raids to a never say die defensive mindset. The Raiders of old would’ve handed out several 40+ thrashings across the season – this year they only did it once to the Warriors. To mangle a jazz phrase, it wasn’t about the points they weren’t scoring, but rather the points they weren’t conceding.
After four years of tinkering, signing players and cutting them loose again Stuart finally found the last two pieces to forge an amazing side. The signings of CNK and Bateman proved to be masterstrokes, giving the Raiders room to move Wighton into the halves and bolstering the fringes.
While the regular season was by no means an exemplary record the Raiders have shown how finals are done in 2019 – no one has had it tougher than them. The Roosters coasted into their prelim berth by easily dispatching the Bunnies. The Raiders meanwhile went on one of the toughest road trips in the game and came away winners thanks to an outstanding defensive effort that saw the Storm frustrated into uncommon territory.
Then, that sweet, delicious prelim final at home in front of near 27000 screaming fans, give or take a few thousand Bunnies lovers drizzled throughout the stands. The noise, the sea of green. The Raiders tireless defence turning the Rabbits back time and time again. Croker’s try off Hodgson’s defence. Wighton’s miracle kick to put himself over.
In the history of Raiders pivotal moments two tries already leap to mind: The first is Chicka Ferguson’s try in the dying minutes of regular time of the 1989 grand final which forces the game into over-time, the second is Steve Jackson’s try off the back of Big Mal scooping up Courier’s wayward grubber. To this esteemed collection you can now add Josh Papalii’s sensational effort on Friday night, a barnstorming run by a forward at the height of his powers. He ran a sharp angle, targeting the hapless Cook who simply bounced of Papa’s big frame, and then those mighty legs engaged to propel the big man past a few more defenders, over the line and into the history books. Dan and I were in bay 76, row B, watching this unfold right in front of us.
There was a microsecond of processing, where time and sound seemed to vanish and then the stadium erupted into pure delirious chaos. The Raiders had done it, with only twelve men on the field (I can only imagine how CNK felt seeing it happen from the sheds).
Arguably the biggest challenge since that inaugural Premiership in ’89 now awaits. 1990 was tough but doable. 1994 was a doddle for a side that may be one of the greatest ever fielded in the game. 2019 is a team built from castoffs and international recruits, players who’ve been rehabbed both physically and culturally. They face a Roosters side that have been slowly curated through the power of the connections of Politis.
The Roosters are everything the Sydney based NRL loves about itself – old money (in football terms), foundation team, a Sydney team. The Raiders are currently twice the odds of the Chooks to take the silverware. For some of us it doesn’t really matter, for they have already proven that they have the tenacity to push the top teams to the limit.
Head to Head
I can’t single anyone out for the Grand Final. Every Raider must play his part, from the big plays down to the little one percenters. The Raiders of 2019 have proven they can overcome insurmountable odds (the Storm) but to do it in this final 80 minutes they really need to be on song.
The Roosters are a ruthless footballing machine. They looked almost unfazed at times against the Storm. They compete until the last second of the game. But at the end of it all they are still a team of human players who do have the capacity for errors and mistakes, which means the Raiders have a chance at taking them down.
Green Star Award
Every single person who attended the prelim for the Raiders or tuned in via tv, streaming or radio. Every person who has climbed on the bandwagon since the finals started. Every person who has written or spoken about the Raiders with respect, rather than writing them off because they don’t fit the NRL narrative. Every person who bleeds green, from the game day 17, the extended squad, the trainers, the coaching staff, the admin team, the fans far and wide, those who live in the Can and attend every home game to those who see the Raiders live at away games.
This is it people. The biggest day in twenty five years. Enjoy the week. Wear your jerseys and caps wherever you can. Watch the replays of Friday. Watch the replays of 1989. Share the love on social media. It may all end in tears come Sunday night, but there’s always a chance they may be tears of joy. This is the last Rumble of 2019. I’ll be back next year.
WE BLEED GREEN!