Being a Raiders fan can sometimes seem like a burden. We’ve lost so many games we should have won, watched too many finals series from the outside, and generally had some pretty shit times (good times too! but that’s another column). The trauma we’ve accumulated over the years is real and profound (in a sporting sense – there’s some actual proper shit out there in the real world).
Recently, a thread went viral on twitter asking sports fans to name their “worst” memory. As a fan of the Green Machine I couldn’t choose between “six again” and Ricky Stuart breaking his ankle and stopping the Raiders inevitably winning the competition in 1993 (do not argue with me, they would have toweled the Broncos that year). Then I started thinking about all the other traumatic experiences I’ve had watching the Raiders, began questioning if it was all worth it, thought about the pandemonium at Bruce Stadium after Josh Papalii ran over Damian Cook to put the Raiders into the grand final last year and happily poured myself another drink.
In the meantime a list was born. 20 of the worst moments in Canberra Raiders history. A whole fucking squad of them, two reserves and someone as a concussion replacement just in case you hurt yourself banging your head on the table reading this list.
This is my attempt to put that pain into order. It started as a list, and then I started writing, trying to work out just why these things hurt so much, and it ended up nearly 2000 words and I’d barely scraped the start. So I’m splitting it into parts; come back in the coming days to revel in the muck with me.
What? You’ve got better things to do?
I’m almost certain I’ve missed some terrible experiences; I’m only human and I’ve repressed a lot of these memories. So if you have anything you think should be in here just let me know, I might even update it.
I’m also sure that this order doesn’t match yours. Let’s just say we all process grief in our own ways. Enjoy?
Oh and don’t worry, the positive version of this list is coming.
20. The Raiders sign Matt Orford
Matt Orford was a quality rugby league halfback at his best. He won a Dally M award and a premiership in 2008, despite existing at the same time as a host of future immortals. He never played Origin or for Australia, but his career ran parallel with Johns, Kimmorley, Thurston, Prince, Cronk, Lockyer, Fittler.
When the Raiders signed him that was all behind him. He’d already spent 2010 in England for the Bradford Bulls, and there was very much a risk that he was past it. But he was as big a name as the Milk had signed in ages, and a similar ploy had worked with Jason Smith a few years earlier. Terry Campese’s collapsed knee (scientific term) in the 2010 semi against the Tigers had meant the Raiders were in dire need of stability and experience in the halves until Terry came back later that year (or so we all thought…hoped? I forget).
He didn’t play round 1 against the Sharks and Sam Williams and Josh McCrone tore the men from the Shire apart. He played in round 2, and was terrible, and the Raiders lost. It didn’t get better from there, culminating in an embarrassing set of mistakes, including knocking on at the base of the scrum to effectively hand the Titans a win at Bruce stadium in round 4. Watching Orford up close that whole day you could tell the groin injury he had brought to the season hadn’t healed. He was dragging that leg, and it meant he was slow, both in pace but also in sideways agility. The Raiders lost their next one as well, then Orford was left out for two weeks, came back in time to helm a shellackings from the Tigers (49-12) and the Sea-Eagles (20-0) before succumbing to injury again with the Raiders at 1-9.
The week after the Ordford-less Raiders beat the Storm in Melbourne and that was it.
19. Everyone rejects the Green
It started with Anthony Milford, progressed to Josh Mansour, Kevin Proctor, Michael Ennis and also James Tedesco.
Milford was particularly hard to take. He’d been nurtured in Canberra, had shown all the promise in the world and the Milk had offered him enough money to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault (how about that recent reference kids!). He left Canberra because he was homesick (maybe? probably? I dunno) for reportedly less than half what the Raiders were offering him a season, which if you believed it was a kick in the guts, and if you didn’t, was a kick in the nuts. Either way it still hurts sixish years later.
So the Raiders went shopping. They went out and picked up a bunch of players, only to have them all reject the Raiders at the last moment, some even after signing. In a sense it worked out for the Green Machine; the Milk wouldn’t have brought much of the English contingent on board if they had Ennis and Proctor, and they’d never have moved Wighton to fullback, which gave him the time to develop his ball-playing skill to become the excellent five-eighth he is today.
But at the time it was soul destroying. Here we were, at the absolute nadir of recent times, and players around the league were taking the opportunity to kick us while we were down.
18. Curtis Scott and Australia Day
The Raiders pushed BJ Leilua, an enigmatic but brilliant player, out the door to take a risk on a young player with an off-field reputation. Normally you don’t take a risk on players Melbourne are willing to let go. But Curtis Scott’s talent was tantilising, and provided Coach Stuart with the out he seemingly felt he had to take to move on from Leilua.
Scott immediately set about proving he was taking his shot with the Raiders seriously, organising a $25,000 plus donation to help support people affected by last summer’s horrific fires, and then blew the goodwill (though, thankfully not the money) by getting arrested and charged with, among other things, assault of a police officer after a big night out on Australia Day in Sydney. That is happened mere days after the Green Machine officially let BJ go. His status is still subject to the courts, and at this stage is probably about as shaky as the NRL’s ability to get a season rolling in May.
The importance of this moment was the shake it put into the Raiders. Conversations about grand finals and whether the Milk were becoming a ‘destination’ for free agents, suddenly became ‘will he stay at the team?’, ‘can we get BJ back?’ and forced people like me to actually learn a bit about the New South Wales legal process. The air was taken out of everything that 2019 had given us, all because (allegedly) Curtis couldn’t keep it together on the sauce.
The shame of it has been once he’s been on the field he’s looked terrific. A ferocious ball runner, he’s been a steady defensive presence. In the second (and potentially last) game of the season we saw the green shoots of what might be a beautiful relationship between him and Nic Cotric. It may end up being a blip on the radar so to speak, or it may end his career for good. The law will tell us later in the year.
17. Wayne Bennett bails
Admittedly this happened before my time (just) but it still stands out as a pivotal moment for what was at the time a young franchise just trying to establish itself in the Sydney competition. Bennett had been Don Furner’s co-coach in leading the side to their first decider in 1987.
Furner had identified the Queensland origin coach as the “chosen one” to take over from him, reportedly ceding much of the reigns in 1987 in order to let him take over from 1988. He had a four year contract, or so it was thought, until it emerged later that Les McIntyre, who ran the Raiders at the time, had never actually signed the piece of paper required to keep Wayne in the capital. It was a comical and frankly naive way to deal with Wayne Bennett.
You know what happened after that. Wayne becomes the coach of a generation in Brisbane, taking them to five grand final wins over the next decade or so. This would have hurt so much more if Tim Sheens hadn’t fallen into the Raiders lap, turning an emerging side into a powerhouse, developing stars like Stuart, Daley, Clyde and Lazarus to go with the Queensland stars.
16. The 1987 Grand Final
No one likes losing grand finals.
There’s a tendency to view this loss with the benefit of hindsight, seeing it as a part of building towards 1989 rather than a painful moment to be redeemed. The Raiders were still establishing themselves, and they were short a couple of stars that would make the 89-94 team so dominant (Loz and Lazarus were yet to establish themselves in the first team, and Clyde would join the next year). But if you’ve ever seen the post-match interviews with Ivan Henjak and Peter Jackson (check them out here), players that never won competitions with the Raiders, you know that 1987 was plenty painful in its own right.
The Raiders were largely outplayed in the game, struggling in the heat as Manly marched to a seemingly unassailable 16-2 lead midway through the second half. It’s tempting to say the Green Machine were never in the game, but that’s not fair. They just came up against a very good side. Would it feel different if they’d gone closer?
15. Joel Monaghan does that thing
For a time Joel Monaghan was essentially the Raiders last tackle attack. We’d get to the end of an attacking set, look for Joel and hoick it in his direction. He was the club’s player of the year in 2008, played for Australia, played for New South Wales and was generally a tremendous footy player. In that era representative players weren’t common in Canberra. We loved him because he was a Canberra junior made good; we loved him because he was the prodigal son who came home from the Roosters, rather than departing for good.
People often talk about how they remember where they were when certain things happened. I remember hearing the rumour, and seeing the picture circulating around twitter, then in its infancy, and remember where I was standing, jaw agape. At first it was shocking, and then you realised the extent to which Joel’s life would change, it was beyond saddening. It seemed ridiculous to talk about the impact on the Raiders, but it was just another problem that had to be filled going into 2011.
14. Pushing Clyde and Sticky out the door.
Ricky Stuart was critical to the Raiders success in the 1990s. When they had him things generally went well, and when they didn’t, well you know how 1993 ended. When the Super League war kicked off, the ARL offered him $500k a year (then an absolute bucketload of money) and the Australian captaincy to abandon the Green Machine for the Roosters and the ARL. Sticky chose his mates and Canberra over Bondi because he valued those things over the ARL’s false concept of ‘loyalty’ (to who? for what?). He had showed his loyalty to the Green in every needle he got in his groin during the 1991 season, desperately playing through pain to keep the Raiders finals hopes alive.
Clyde had been the best forward in the competition from 1989 to the mid-1990s. When fit, he was unstoppable, capable of playing on the edge off either Sticky or Lozza, or becoming an extra prop, taking hard carry after hard carry, indefatigable. Health had been a problem for him throughout his career – he missed the 1990 grand final with an ACL injury, and played 14 games in 1992, 8 games in 1993 before righting himself physically over 1994 and 1995.
Sticky too had his share of injuries over the years. The Raiders had stayed loyal to them both, and they had given the Raiders everything. Then suddenly the Raiders saw the potential of some young players (e.g. the Mac Attack), and with a tight salary cap position were forced to make a decision between the promise of loyalty and one-club players and the potential of the future. The Raiders chose the future, and it was probably the right decision, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating.
13. Ben Kennedy and abandonment
It certainly wasn’t all just the Raiders pushing old gold out the door. More often that not young talent has left Canberra for greener pastures (there’s space for a joke in there somewhere, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.)
Ben Kennedy was the most promising young forward the Raiders had unearthed since the golden era. The club’s rookie of the year in 1996, he quickly established himself as a rampaging edge runner with the same power and pace versatility that had made a young Bradley Clyde so tantalising a decade earlier. He made origin in 1999, and frankly the only way it seemed was up.
The order of these events is not entirely clear in my mind nor from my research but the following things then happened. Ben Kennedy turned up at training after an over-exuberant drinking session with teammate Brandon Pearson, was sent home for being drunk, accused of taking an illicit substance and then admitted he did but that he spat it out. Somewhere amongst all this Kennedy signed with the Newcastle Knights, ending his career with the Raiders just as it was in the upswing.
He went on to become of mainstay if the Blues and Australian teams, won a premiership with the Knights and even made Big Mal’s “best 17 Raiders of all time” recently. What could have been hey?
12. Todd gets the sack
True story. I was at a fancy soirée of a mates parents at some point in the 2003/2004 range. At that party was then Raiders chief executive Simon Hawkins. I cornered him, because I’m broken like that and proceeded to tell him how the future of the Canberra Raiders lay with this young Carney kid.
It was hardly a hot take. In fact it was painfully obvious to anyone with a brain that Carney had talent, and that even though Coach Elliott was working him in slowly from the bench, it was only a matter of time that he was a star.
I remember when I told Simon Hawkins my hope lay in Todd he gave me this look. Now, it may have been “can someone please separate me from this lunatic”, but at the time I interpreted it as the look of someone not being as sure as I was.
In hindsight he probably knew some things. Carney’s time in Canberra was eventful, both on the field and off it. You know all the things that put him on the wrong side of the law and the people, but you could hear as many stories from anyone who worked in a pub that were as bad if not worse. In fact, even Sportress alumni had a comical “incident” with Todd back in the day.
When Todd’s final stand came, the Raiders simply asked him to give up the sauce as part of a five-point plan to stay at the club. He refused, was sacked from the club. At the time it felt like the end of an era, only that era had never really even started. It would have hurt so much more if Terry Campese hadn’t won the people’s heart in the coming months.
I resented Todd every time he was successful at other clubs because I’m a vindictive prick. I should have been happy for him when he won the Dally M player of the year in 2010. I was going for the Dragons when he made the grand final with the Roosters.
Looking back Todd gave us as many good memories as bad one (the 45m field goal v the Cows always stands out). It’s such a shame we couldn’t make it work.
10. The 1991 Grand Final
For many this game should be higher. One of the great rugby league teams of the modern era could have stamped itself amongst the all-time by winning three premierships in a row. They were leading 12-6 well into the second half and Mark Geyer was in the bin. Could or should they have held on?
In a sense the fact that the Raiders had made it that far is actually a testament to the greatness of that team. They were broken. Laurie Daley was broken, Ricky Stuart required injections before games and at half time into his pubis; so painful that other players still talk today about the respect they have for Ricky being able to go through that. As Mal Meninga told News Limited
“In 1991 he had a really severe groin injury, shouldn’t have been playing…“He couldn’t train through the week but each weekend he used to have those injections in his groin, and you could hear the screaming from the doctor’s room.Meninga to the Herald Sun
On the “Behind the Limelight” podcast, Shaun McRae, then Raiders trainer, spoke of how incredible it was that this exhausted, broken-down side had dragged itself to the grand final, a true champion refusing to give up their crown, getting by on grit and determination.
It hurt so bad at the time. I never saw Royce Simmons final try because 8 year old me was crying on the front lawn, so obvious was it that the Raiders had spent all their energy just hanging in, that when the Panthers took the lead I knew it was all over. The photos of Stuart crying on the ground, the immensity that all the pain, all those needles weren’t worth it, should haunt Canberrans forever. I remember that day as much as any other day watching footy.
But also we should feel pride. The Raiders could have lay down at any point of that season. They did not go gentle into that good night, and raged against the dying of the light. That’s truly the mark of a champion.
Oh you’re that much of a sucker? Why not read part II here?
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