The best moment of the 2019 was Josh Papalii storming over Damian Cook to put the people’s team, the Canberra Raiders into the grand final. I was there and I will forever be grateful.
The Raiders preliminary final was an experience. 25 years of pent up frustration combined with years of painful scars meant the crowd that day was wound up tighter than an op-ed column. You could feel it. The crowd knew Canberra could win but didn’t want to be hurt again. For all that the 2019 Raiders did to separate themselves from the Green Machine’s painful past, the Canberra crowd carried those memories like those flashbacks that sit in the back of your head and only re-appear when your trying to have a good time.
So yeah. It was tense.
The game didn’t make it any better. The first half saw the Raiders barely hanging on as Souths peppered there right side defence. There was try savers from Aidan Sezer and Josh Papalii. There was dropped ball over the line from the Bunnies. That the teams went in one try a piece at halftime was a minor miracle. A second miracle came early in the second when Jack Wighton somehow toed a ball he maybe dropped and scored to give the Raiders the lead.
It all seemed like it was falling apart when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was sin-binned. Fingers crossed. Sphincters tightened. Was it happening again?
Then Papalii did it.
It’s hard not to consider this try in conjunction with Papalii’s run againat the Storm that capped the “Once Upon A Time in Melbourne” miracle comeback. On that day it seemed to come out the blue; a “settler” that burst into life. It was Papalii bristling with brutality, proving his dominance over the most disciplined team in the competition.
The run against the Bunnies was different. It was more like his try in the last round of the regular season, where Papalii came back over the awful middle defence of the Warriors to score an easy try. On that day he burst back left to right to score against a defence that just couldn’t handle the Papalii power. You were waiting 30 minutes to happen. When it did you weren’t surprised.
In this circumstance it was even more obvious. The Raiders were down a man. There was little threat, either in numbers or in the game trajectory that Canberra were going to go around Souths. Papalii had been such a big part of the Milk’s red zone attack up to that point of the season, usually sitting off Hodgson’s left shoulder.
Here again the Raiders were set up for it. Seated behind the posts at that end of the ground, it was right in front of me. At the time I yelled to Rob “where’s Papalii? They’ve got to give it to Papa!” But he was two (and too) wide I thought. It didn’t matter. Instead of coming off Hodgson’s shoulder it was Aidan Sezer’s. Running the same angle as he did against the Warriors, he burst through Damian Cook like he was finish line tape. It didn’t matter who else was around. They could help him. Papalii scored.
If I’m being honest I can’t tell you what order things happened after that. I definitely tried to climb my chair for reasons I don’t know. I also tried to climb Rob like he was an oak tree. I definitely hugged people. I definitely shook my mate Kerrin because it had become a damn well tradition at that point (poor Kez had stood next to me for the qualifying final against the storm too). I probably asked anyone who was listening how long was there to go. I remember looking to the crowd and hearing the noise and wanting to take it in. The guys next to me absolutely criminally started a chanting “we’re going to Sydney”. For the second time in the season I got so overwhelmed by the excitement that I started to shake. Both moments came from Josh Papalii.
And whenever I think back on it my now it always gets a bit dusty.
I was also there for the worst moment. I do remember seeing the six again signal. I was dejected by what followed. It left me wondering about what might’ve been and hollowed by what had happened. I’ll forgive but never forget the biggest referee error in grand final history.
But I won’t remember that in the same way. The Papalii try was a simultaneous explosion of joy in the hearts of 25 thousand people. It was catharsis for 25 years of pain, for every heart-wrenching loss. It’s our story now. Now every time the Green Machine get me down I can just say “remember that time Papa ran over Damian Cook right in front of us to put the Raiders in the grand final for the first time in 25 years?”
And for that I’ll always be grateful.