The Canberra Raiders lost the grand final 14-8 to the Sydney Roosters. They lost for a range of reasons. Some of these related to the football, some of these related to officiating. In a game as tight as this one was, small moments become massive.
But the Raiders should not hang their heads. It was an effort that will go down in Canberra lore as one of its most inspiring. The Raiders went toe-to-toe with the team many will begin to call a dynasty in the coming months. It’s beyond disheartening that it didn’t result in a victory, but they lost no followers in this game.
At every point the Canberra Raiders were as good as the Roosters. The only upper hand the Sombreros had was early, when their middle were dominant over the first 25 minutes. They played with the pace that has defined their success, and the Green Machine initially struggled to match. Jared Warea-Hargreaves was huge in this period, and had near 150 metres on the ground in the first half. Canberra had to battle to get control of the ruck, and in the meantime Sam Verrills has burrowed over to give Easts an earned lead.
At this point many would have been thinking that this game was a step to far for this Canberra outfit but between the 6th and the 72nd minute, the Roosters found the Raiders defence impenetrable. Gone was the scintillating left edge; Keary/Cordner/Mitchell was solved by the Raiders right side, and the Roosters became confused as to how to create points. They shifted to the Canberra left, but Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead routinely jumped into the face of Cronk and shut down anything that could have threatened.
The Roosters were perplexed, and spent the best part of the next fifty minutes trying to find a way to break the Raiders line. It was a testament to how far this green defensive unit has come – they made a side that put an easy 30 on them early in the season look pedestrian.
They did because their middles never stopped getting up into the middle and pushing out to restrict the space to Roosters had to operate. On one example Josh Hodgson chased a scum play designed to create an overlap through a switch of play all the way to the sideline and the play fizzled because of it. They did it because Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman were the white-out of edge defence, erasing the mistakes of people around them. They did it because they have a fitness and a resilience that allows them to keep getting into good positions even when they are being overwhelmed in the ruck.
If only the Raiders could have matched their defensive prowess with offensive penetration. The attack was slow early as the middles struggled to win a ruck against the Roosters middle. But as time wore on they began to earn quicker play the balls and more metres. Josh Papalii ended the game with a Herculean 18 runs for 164m. At one point early he had six carries for around thirty metres such was the pace deficit the Raiders attack were operating with. That he ended with 59 post contact metres merely underscores this point. He was exemplary again, and could have earned the Clive Churchill on another night. BJ Leilua again had several crucial runs as an extra forward, finding away to break tackles and earn quick rucks when no one else could. John Bateman was brilliant jumping out on the edge, or coming back against the ruck.
Early the other forwards struggled, and it wasn’t until the second half that they began to find metres consistently. You can see this in the differing metre outputs of Papalii’s first sting and Emre Guler’s second-half-only 8 carries for 78 metres. There was just more space for movement before contact as the Raiders began to dominate field position.
Getting into the game took time, but once they did it was really pleasing to see the Raiders settle into the 2019 formula so well. They worked the middle, kicked to corners and smashed the Roosters coming off their own line. They kept Tedesco from having an impact. They were doing it on the biggest level against the best opposition.
All the while Josh Hodgson began to work. He began to find a bit of space for his forwards. He played wide to Bateman to get outside the middle third. He ran and then played short to Soliola or another forward whenever he got a quick ruck. He had some huge runs early, spotting when the Roosters had sold out to stop the yardage carries on one side of the field, darting up the other for crucial metres. His long kicking game was also important.
And after Cotric burst across the ground from the wing, he spotted to the Roosters had overcompensated to get appropriate numbers to the Raiders right. He showed right, and hit Wighton back on the left who was simply too big and the Milk were alive. It was also Hodgson’s brilliant read in the 60th minute to go right on the last that started a movement that should have resulted in BJ hitting Rapana for a try. Alas Leilua held the ball a tad too long, the defence arrived and a moment was missed. We knew how big it was at the time, and what followed only underscored that.
And Jack. What a champion. Winning the Clive Churchill in a losing effort should tell you how he played. He held his left side brilliantly, testing the Roosters right edge for the full eighty minutes with short and long balls. These didn’t always come off but always threatened. When he runs he terrifies oppositions, as he did in this game. He also found space with his kicks into the corners and led the chase.
It was downright incredible to see given he started the season as a risk (my words!) at five-eighth. That position is settled for the next decade Raiders fans. Embrace it. Jack has errors in his game but there will be less next year and even less the year after. This guy is a footballer and he loves the Raiders. He’s ours.
Wighton, Hodgson and Papalii didn’t do it all themselves. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was incredible in his positioning. No Roosters kick found him wrong-footed, and he hit the defensive line at pace every time. These kick returns were supported by excellent yardage work from Nic Cotric (17 for 144m) and Jordan Rapana (14 for 139m). It was the both wingers best performance in months, and should give any fan who thinks the Raiders will be fine without Rapana pause.
Ultimately though the Raiders could only muster one try. Sure they looked like they could have created more – if BJ makes that pass, if Cronk’s doesn’t take down Papalii without the ball, the Raiders could have been up 18-8 rather than 8-8. Any other week you can say ‘it’s ok, we’ll find a way next week.’ But in a grand final you only get one shot.
And so when with mere minutes left you have an opportunity to ice the game with a set of tackles on the opposition line it’s a rare gift. And to have that gift stripped from you by the only time in sporting history a referee has changed their decision in the middle of the play, it’s bound to be controversial. Normally we don’t do refereeing in these pages, but it seems irresponsible to not given the gravity of this decision.
Let’s start with the obvious. This was a massive blunder by the referee. Once he called six to go the decision was made. After the hand signal went up no player on earth would be looking to see if his mind was changed in the coming moments. And to say Jack should have heard the referee is beyond dumb. I couldn’t hear my mate sitting next to me such was the noise of the crowd. This was a blunder, no two ways about it.
Some argue that the error didn’t cost the Raiders the game; that they should have scored in the preceding 72 minutes; that the defensive error that followed on the next set was the reason for the Green Machine’s loss. This is a partial story. Rugby League is about opportunities, and six tackles to work for a try or an Aidan Sezer field goal (which was almost certainly coming on that set) was one that was given. The Roosters opportunity to score came because they had the ball when they shouldn’t have.
The correct call would have been for the referee to follow the ‘inadvertent stoppage’ procedure, and give a scrum to the attacking team. This would have been the same result as offering six again. So even in spirit he got it wrong.
Combine that with what would have almost certainly been an early attacking opportunity taken away after the Roosters trainer managed to get in the way of a charge-down, and you’d say the Roosters had more than their share of luck.
Given this it was bizarre to see Roosters fans behave in such a manner when Wighton was named Clive Churchill winner. And let’s not pretend this was a few rogue Roosters fans. It was their supporters section. If the Raiders’ supporters section had booed anyone when we won I would have been embarrassed. They were lucky Boyd Cordner showed more class than they could.
Sidebar: Rob has more views on this here: https://sportress.wordpress.com/2019/10/07/working-through-the-pain/
And so here I am writing this all up, hurtling on a southbound train the morning after. It hurts more today than it did last night, and it hurt plenty then. I want it to hurt less, but I think this is one of those that’s going to sit in the pit of my stomache and the corner of my mind forever.
The Raiders deserved to win – they were better than the best the competition had to offer. They overcame the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune just to make the grand final, and then in the biggest moment with their destiny in their hands it was cruelly ripped away. It’s a shame that only Canberra fans will remember that in time. Your boy will be telling people we were better in 2019, and over time he’ll seem crazier and crazier.
But this team deserved better. Forget proud. This team was a goddamn privilege this year. They played with such intelligence, such effort. They showed that the Canberra Raiders could match the best the world had to offer. They showed that the Milk could be the cornerstone of all that is good in the rugby league world and take on the galactic empire, the purest forces of privilege and advantage and battle them to a stand still.
Last night should be remembered not because the Raiders lost in controversial circumstances but because they had the temerity to take on the impossible and nearly win.
And so we can look forward to next year, and these pages will do just that in the next few weeks. But for a second, please take a moment to consider what a blessing the 2019 Canberra Raiders were. We should all be grateful they were part of our life. They gave us hope when that well had been dry for 25 years.
And for that they will always be champions to us.