When there isn’t footy on, one of the funnest things to do as a fan is talk about who was the best. Then you put them into a side, because one day when we’re all cyborgs, we’ll finally be able to find out whether the 1994 Raiders would have beaten everyone (I mean we know they would but it’d be nice to see some confirmation).
Putting together a “best Raiders side ever” isn’t that interesting to me. It usually it just an exercise in mashing together the golden era side with today. Some questions have to be resolved – Belcher or Mullins (Belcher), or which two of Nagas, Nadruku, Ferguson or Rapana (Rapana and Chicka for mine) but mostly there’s no wrong answer. Even for a club as ‘young’ as the Milk there’s plenty of talent.
So let’s narrow the parameters a bit. The SportingNews did it recently by naming the “best team to never win a grand final”. For the Raiders that would just mean the best post-1994 team. Interesting, but you’re hardly grasping for names. So what if we deliberately exclude arguably the two best eras in Canberra league and say “the best to never play a grand final” and see what we come up with.
A few rules: by “never play a grand final” I’m including grand finals played for other teams. That means Brad Drew (Eels 2001) is out, as is Frank Paul Nu’uausala (Roosters 2013). Shaun Fensom is out (Cowboys 2017) which is a sad for so many reasons and now I need a drink.
The other rule is I’m mostly basing this on how they played for the Raiders. So while Dave Taylor’s 9 game stint in Canberra was memorable, I’m not considering the form that earned him a representative career.
Fullback: Clinton Schifcofske
Schifcofske was legit. During his stay in Canberra, he was the most exciting thing in Matt Elliott’s conservative attack. He lead the Raiders in points, played Origin (2006, my favourite Origin series) and even slotted back-to-back field goals to win a heart-stopper 30-29 against the Warriors in front of me and 8000 other loyal fans in ’04. Oh, and his drunken lair when he lined up a kick was perfection.
Others considered: The Raiders have had some great fullbacks. Josh Dugan could be here too and I wouldn’t give you the side-eye. Mark McLinden was excitement that never quite panned out how we thought he would. David Milne ran in straight lines and I loved it, and one time he served me on McHappy Day and was surprised I knew who he was. Love that guy.
Wingers: Lesley Vanikolo and Sean Hoppe
Both of these wingers feel like a fever dream. Lesley Vanikolo was massive and fast, a harbinger of the coming age of the winger-cum-prop. He should have spent more time in the NRL but scooted off to the Super League early. Consequently he’s sometimes forgotten in the conversations about great Raiders’ wingers.
Hoppe signed a letter of intent with the Warriors after a stellar start to his career with Canberra over 1992 and 1993. Consequently the Raiders shipped him off to North’s for 1994, Kenny Nagas established himself and the rest is history.
Others considered: I know it was you, Edrick. You broke my heart.
Centres: Joel Monaghan and Adam Mogg
Joel Monaghan was the Green Machine’s lone last tackle option for the longest time. We’d get into the attacking zone, work it around a bit, and then kick it high for him and hope. He came down with it way more than he should have. He played Origin, and deserved more representative opportunities than he got.
Adam Mogg was proof that most of us just need someone to believe in us in order for us to reach our potential. A useful defensive centre, a few origin games on wing really unleashed his ball playing abilities. All of a sudden he was taking the ball at first receiver, ducking and diving across the field looking for ball runners.
Others considered: I tossed up putting Josh Dugan here, but he never really played centre for the Raiders.. Phil Graham was electric in a bit of space, even if defence wasn’t his best skill. BRENKO! Marshall Chalk (who could fill in a fullback and second row which I guess says a lot about how the Raiders of the Elliott era played). I was keen to get Peter Jackson in here because I just feel like he’s a forgotten man in the Raiders history, but he played in the ’87 grand final.
Halves: Terry Campese and Sam Williams
This was the easiest bit for me. Terry Campese is a goddamn Canberra hero. He took a side that was at its lowest, having seen its prodigal Dennis the Menace walk out the door, and turned it into fire. He played Origin, for Australia, nearly dragging the Raiders to a preliminary final until his knee collapsed under the pressure of it all.
Sam Williams is probably one that many will question. Maybe you’re an Andrew McFadden man, maybe you think Blake Austin’s running game would lead to some double-trouble with Campese. But really, all you need to know about Sam Williams was displayed in the 2012 semi-final against the Sharks. He was brilliant. He played the game of a career to win the Raiders one of the best moments in Bruce Stadium history.
Other considered: Similarly to Peter Jackson, Ivan Henjak is sometimes forgotten as part of the early Raiders, but his role in 1987 rules him out. Blake Austin was exciting. Andrew McFadden, Michael Dobson, Marc Herbert Josh McCrone, Mitch Cornish are all people I thought were going to be better than they were.
Lock: Alan Tongue
The Raiders have some very good locks in their time. Brad Clyde, Dean Lance, Jason Croker, Shaun Fensom. They all played grand finals. Alan Tongue is a Canberra legend, possibly the toughest human whoever played rugby league, willing to do whatever it took on the field, and off it.
Others considered: Most of the great Raiders’ locks played in the big dance. Clyde, Lance, Croker, Fensom and Tapine have all been there.
Backrow: Joel Thompson and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs
Joel Thompson is an excellent backrower. He’s a capable ball-player and an excellent defender. I’m still sad he left.
When Tom Learoyd-Lahrs was healthy he was such a damaging runner who despite being massive, was mobile enough to play on the edge (and even started a game at centre for the Raiders). He never met his potential, but still managed to play four games for the Blues and four for Australia.
Others considered: I was always convinced Joe Picker would join Joel Thompson and Shaun Fensom and make one of the great Raiders’ backrows. Trevor Thurling was a powerful and fast ball-runner who spent too much time playing off the bench. Bronson Harrison is another who I always loved.
Props: Vaughan and Lomax
Johnny Lomax is only here on a technicality. He was part of one the most underrated forward packs in rugby league history. He should have been part of a winning grand final in 1994 but alas, the judiciary intervened.
Paul Vaughan is a local Canberra boy and should still be on the Milk. It was clear from the moment he started playing first grade that he’d be a star. I don’t know what happened between him and Ricky Stuart that led to his departure, but he’s found his feet at the Dragons, making Origin and Australian teams following his departure.
Others considered: It’s quite a list here too. Shannon Boyd, Luke Davico, David Shillington, Dane Tilse, Troy Thompson, Junior Paolo, Josh Miller. Ashley Gilbert and Sam Backo were early stalwarts but played in 1987, as was David Grant. The Raiders have never been short of boppers.
Hooker: Simon Woolford
One of my favourite memories that involve Simon Woolford is the day he got sent off at Brookvale and the Raiders still put 50 on the Silvertails. He got three weeks for that hit and I will argue to my grave he didn’t deserve more than a penalty. He was a very good hooker, a good captain, and I always quite enjoyed his coffee shops. Probably should point out that the Raiders chose him over Clive Churchill winner Luke Priddis though.
Others considered: Siliva Havili didn’t make the grand final 17 in 2019. Lincoln Withers played a bit of hooker and could have earned a spot here.
Bench: Siliva Havili, Shannon Boyd, Luke Davico, David Shillington
I chose Siliva over Lincoln Withers which feels like recency bias. Shannon Boyd played for Australia while with the Raiders; he’s been less than stellar since. Luke Davico may be one of the most underrated Raiders of the 90s, and David Shillington was a Origin star when Canberra had few.
I really like this team. It’s massive, but the presence of Alan Tongue, Joel Thompson gives it a bit of mobility – I could see Tongue sliding to 12 and Siliva playing plenty of middle minutes. I’m not sure what happens to an edge defence that might include Sam Williams, Phil Graham and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs. With Campo flying high and the strikepower out wide it would have no problem scoring points, and if they could, well maybe they could make a grand final after all.
Far out I miss the footy.