The 20 worst moments in Raiders’ history Part II (10 – 1)

Hey this is the second part. You can check out the first part here.

BY DAN

Sometimes I wonder why I love the Canberra Raiders so much.

All these painful moments? Soul crushing experiences. Why would any human turn their spare time into a cavalcade of suffering? Is this something I secretly enjoy? Am I somehow confusing a personality with following a ‘cursed’ football team? Such is the ridiculousness of what follows, I am concerned the pain has pervaded my sense of self. What a world. I’m not the only person that asks myself these questions. After each of the below moments I can assure you that many of you did the same. Or drank until you stopped.

We made it through Part I mostly unscathed, but if you haven’t checked out that bit you should start there. When you do you’ll notice I missed some notable departures. Let’s call them ‘honourable mentions’ in the disappointment stakes.

While I included the departures of Sticky and Clyde, I negated to mention two other departures that cut right to the bone. As I’ve written before, I was there the day Ruben Wiki “arrived” and I was there for the last day too, and he should be remembered as one of the great Raiders. I’m not sure where his departure ranks in this list, but he should be mentioned.

Another important departure for me was Shaun Fensom. He was one of the good guys. He once told me he didn’t drink during the season. He gave his heart every carry of every game. Then one day money got tight, and he was bid farewell. I was so happy when he got to play a grand final with the Cowboys, and so gutted when he broke his leg in the first minute.

And we have last summer. After everything that we went through together in 2019 it was so sad to see BJ Leilua, Jordan Rapana and Aidan Sezer leave because Sticky didn’t believe in them anymore (in BJ and Aidan’s cases) or because the salary cap trumps my desire for completeness and redemption. I love all three of those players, and wish them nothing but success.

Now that you’re feeling suitably sad, it’s time to get to the top ten worst moments in Raiders history. Speaking of broken limbs…

10. Mal breaks his arm

This happened a few times (four according to NRL.com). The first time it was through a sickening collision with the goal post in a game at Seiffert oval against Manly in early 1987 (you can see it here if you’re really desperate). He missed a bunch of games, and his lack of match fitness was there for all to see in the finals. He only played sixty minutes against Easts in the preliminary final, and he was replaced by Kevin Walters in the grand final as he tired in the second half. It was brutally unlucky.

Then, right when he wanted to show he was ready to kick ass and earn redemption in ’88, he broke it again. And then, months later, just four games into his return, he broke it again. I think that’s all of them, but i’m not sure. He played 17 games across two years, and it nearly derailed the career of the greatest Raider ever and a rugby league immortal.

It all worked out in the end, but for two years there it was never clear if Mal was going to ever show just how great he was in Canberra.

9. Bathurst

The Raiders have lost some close ones across the years. Early on people used to call them the Faders because they would find ways to sputter at the worst times. Bathurst, as famous Raiders’ fan Craig Norenbergs brilliantly put it at Today’s Tale, gets a one-word moniker. It’s like Madonna, or Prince, but it’s painful every time you hear it (so Madonna then…zing!).

Bathurst was awful for a range of reasons. Giving up an 8 point lead with less than three minutes on the clock is obviously upsetting. The Milk were still in the run for the finals. A week before they’d lost a heartbreaker to Manly in golden point (heckling Dylan Walker never felt so counter-productive), and we really needed the victory. We weren’t really good in that game (you can read our review of the game here – we called it rock bottom – something, sadly, that was wrong), but with the lead and everything to play for, there’s no way we should have clocked off early.

But here’s the kicker for me at least. You could feel it coming. That dread, that frustratingly familiar dread that only Raiders fans can feel. It was there, and when with the Raiders up 2 and a set to go, Warren Smith on the coverage said “they’ve been in three golden point games this year and lost all three” I was already grimacing. On the next set Moylan bent the line once and nearly put Yeoh through and you could feel it falling away. Then he did it again, basically running at the same right edge defence that is now a rock but was then a feather, found Peachey and already existing scars deepened.

8. Bulgarelli drops the ball

2003 was such a promising year for the Matt Elliott Raiders. They’d started hot, didn’t lose until round 9 (Melbourne at Melbourne) and were top of the table through 13 rounds of the season. Elliott had given the team a simple game plan; play with pace straight up the middle, win the rucks and defend. It worked because the wrestle hadn’t come to dominate the ruck just yet, so they could fly up the field, one pass out from the ruck at most.

They were scoring points (620 on the season), combining local talent (the emerging Joel Monaghan scored 21 tries that season) with bought (Brad Drew and Adam Mogg joined Clinton Schifcofske as part of the Parramatta diaspora), and old (Jason Croker, Ruben Wiki, Luke Davico). In that mix, Jason Bulgarelli emerged as the Raiders rookie of the year, a 27-year-old long-shot from Queensland who was as fast as he was wide. Every time he got in a bit of space it was like someone propelling a brick down the field.

Back then it was the weird McIntyre finals system, which is awful no matter what chaos merchants say, and so the Raiders faced the 5th place Storm in week 1 and lost (shame on us that we had a home final and only 14 thousand people turned up). The next week the Raiders were playing the 6th placed Warriors (the McIntyre system is cooked) in Sydney because fuck you NRL. But both the Warriors, and the Panthers sitting beyond them felt eminently beatable, and for the first time in ages, there was a little crack of vision of a grand final. A sliver of light. We just had to beat the Warriors.

Everyone who isn’t a Raiders’ fan will tell you this was a cracking game and teams really fighting it out for a chance to play the Panthers for a shot in the grand final. All any Green Machine fan will tell you is that with minutes to go, Jason Bulgarelli dropped the ball over the line when he should have scored a match-winning try. In his words to The Sydney Morning Herald,

“I just remember dropping the ball over the line. That was the biggest memory…All I remember was having it, juggling it out of my hands and seeing it hit the ground. I don’t know what the feeling is.”

Sadness.

Stacey Jones slotted a field goal to win it for the Warriors a few minutes later, and the Matt Elliott era in Canberra never recovered. Instead of 2004 being a year the Green Machine built on potential success, the Raiders scraped into the finals with more losses than wins, Ruben Wiki, Joel Monaghan and Luke Davico left and Bulgarelli was arrested for trying to have drugs sent to Raiders HQ, which, I just dunno man.

And then it was all over. A dropped ball changed so much.

7. Eddie drops the ball

When Jason Bulgarelli dropped the ball it’s a convenient starting point for a downward spiral, but it didn’t directly lead to him leaving the club. He was still on the roster the next season, the Raiders still made the finals the next season. The drop off came well after the moment that was more a symbolic starting point than anything.

I watched Edrick Lee drop the ball in the corner the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. I know the Raiders were down by more than a converted try at the time, and that scoring twice against the Storm in the last 10 minutes was always going to be an ask. But the Raiders were pressing, as they so often have over the years, when things were just a smidge beyond likely. They needed to score right then to have enough time to maybe, hopefully, score again (which they did).

When Eddie dropped that ball it was disheartening; one of those moments where you’re not even angry, you’re just quiet and sad. It’s funny, at the time I wrote simply “Edrick Lee dropped at least one pass that could have resulted in points.” So matter of fact. Not even angry. Just broken by the moment.

If I’m being honest it’s because I never really expected the Green Machine to win that game, but I did see it as the start of something. So when Edrick was banished from the roster without playing another game for the Raiders it was sad that he wouldn’t get a shot at redemption in Canberra. Over 2017 and 2018 things didn’t go right for the Milk, and a number of people followed him out the door since. Seven players from that 2016 preliminary final didn’t play for the Raiders in 2019, and ten in all have departed since that game.

6. Dugan and Ferguson and roof cruisers

If you’re sensing a theme here it’s because I’m a broken human. The 2012 semi-final, one of the sneaky great days at Bruce Stadium, should have been the start of something beautiful. The Raiders had talent to burn across the park. A burgeoning Josh Papalii, fresh from destroying Paul Gallen’s will to live, David Shillington hitting his prime, Shaun Fensom, Joel Thompson, Jarrod Croker, Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan really hitting their potential.

Ah yeah.

Given how his career has gone more recently, it’s important to remember that at the time Dugan was a scintillating player. As Daily Telegraph writer extraordinaire Nick Campton recently pointed out, early on in his career Dugan was a sight to behold, a tackle-breaking machine. Watching him scythe through the defensive line, like a panther springing from the jungle, was breathtaking. He, along with Ferguson gave the Raiders attack so many options that it didn’t really matter that Josh McCrone and Glen Buttriss were prominently involved.

There had always been rumours of behavioural issues with Dugan, and it seems like he found the Bonnie to his Clyde in Ferguson. When they decided to skip a recovery session after an early season loss to the Panthers to sit on a roof and drink cruisers (just getting some energy-dense replenishment) it screamed “the last straw” for the Raiders administration. They sacked him that week and kept Blake Ferguson on the side. That proved foolish in the long-term, when he was charged and later convicted with indecent assault. A whole conga-line of shit behaviour.

For the Raiders 2013 wasn’t as bad I remember – they were in the top 8 as late as round 21 – but only because the competition was rather flat (only six points separated 6th and the Raiders in 13th). It more highlighted that without it’s talented backs, the Raiders had a hard-working ceiling. Ferguson and Dugan picked up their respective careers and moved on, and it worked out for both of them, which I wasn’t bitter about at all.

5. Campo’s knee/Croker’s miss

Talk about a rough night.

Terry Campese was a goddamn Canberra hero who had saved the Raiders from the crisis caused by Todd Carney’s departure. He was given less than Carney and delivered more. Campese dragged the Green Machine to the finals after Carney’s sacking on the back of astounding attacking football. To butcher a phrase he was both the hero we deserved and the one we needed.

In 2010 he’d done it again. A late season run snuck the Raiders into 7th, despite not having been in the top 8 until round 25. Of course Campese was amongst everything, but also there was a young outside back who had terrible hair and a lot of responsibility on his boot prominently involved.

The semi against the Tigers was a moment. There was sight of a preliminary, and a home final with a massive crowd against what we felt was a manageable opponent. Yet again it was a chance to build on the late season success of that young side into something more and sustained. Then Campo went down with a non-contact knee injury – the worst kind – and even though the Raiders scored in the play, their finals hopes collapsed with that knee. So much of their game revolved around Terry.

To make matters worse, mere minutes later Croker would have a chance to level the scores and give the Milk a chance in golden point. He missed, wearing much of the blame for a miss rendered almost meaningless by Campese’s injury. While Croker would recover from the disappointment, Campese’s body never really did.

4. First 4 weeks of 2018

In an objective sense this was way too high. Our expectations of 2018 were never going to be matched by the reality of them. In hoping a structurally flawed side could magically overcome it’s almost comical defensive frailties and the inability to marry those problems with an attack that was like Greg Norman – fantastic until it wasn’t.

Maybe we shouldn’t have expected much, but no one saw coming what followed those first four weeks. First they gave up a 16 point lead to the flipping Titans. That hurt, but there was hope. After all we scored points at will right? Just needed to try a bit harder in defence and be a bit smarter with the game on the line right? The next week was the Knights. With an 8 point lead and about 15 minutes on the clock they should have found a win.

Two heartbreaking losses in back to back weeks is one thing, and it should have stopped there. Instead, the Raiders had a 7 point lead evaporate in the last four minutes of the game. A try, and two field goals on back-to-back-to-back sets. Each set pouring through the same structure, taking advantage of the same weaknesses in the Canberra defensive line. The Bathurst style inevitability was there again as Shaun Johnson kicked the final field goal to win the game. At the time I wrote:

“This season is quickly becoming some horrid, recurring nightmare. Each week they lead. Each week they lose in the most harrowing way possible. This loss is the kind that defines players, seasons and careers. Leading 19-12 with 4 minutes to go the Raiders knew what they had to do to win. They knew that the previous two losses made the stakes higher this week. But they capitulated, destroyed by a mixture of fitness, game awareness and defensive structures.”

So yeah. It wasn’t going well. And worse this last one was right in front of a home crowd desperate for a victory. Any one of these losses was a stomach punch. Stringing them together was like a rugby league version of Saw; with Jigsaw parading our removed intestines in front of us.

When they were blown off the park by a more mobile Manly forward pack the next week I was pathetically grateful. At least they didn’t get my hopes up this time. Coach Stuart said he saw players that weren’t fit to wear the jumper. It still makes me sad to think about it.

3. The salary cap and ‘Save a Raider

In 1990 the NSWRL introduced a salary cap in a bid to do what salary caps do: level the competition. In April of 1991 it was revealed the Raiders were in excess of the salary cap when they won the 1990 grand final. When it was revealed that they were still over for 1991 all hell broke loose.

The decision was made that the Green Machine would be fined. Raiders Chairman John McIntyre stepped down, and the discussion became how the Milk would find the finances to survive as a club. This was profoundly confusing to 8 year old Dan – how did a team that was spending too much money suddenly have enough? I’m still not certain.

There was turmoil surrounding the club; and everyone got involved. The general public were encouraged – by the Prime flipping Minister no less – to contribute their hard-earned to keep the Raiders alive as part of the ‘Save A Raider’ campaign. Even little old me got a badge and wore it with pride.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1480-1.jpg
Check it out! I still have it.

Still the vultures circled. Teams tried to make Big Mal, Sticky, Loz, Clyde and Boxhead offer they couldn’t refuse. They stuck fast – a rare shining light in the darkness – but the Raiders still lost Glenn Lazarus, Brent Todd, David Barnhill, Nigel Gaffey and Paul Martin by the time it was resolved. At the time it felt like they’d never find their way back to the top. Which is what makes the next one so heartbreaking .

2. Sticky breaks his leg

Ask anyone who was at the ground that day (which doesn’t include me) and they will tell you they could hear Ricky Stuart screaming at the pain of his broken ankle. The Raiders were up 40 odd points on a hapless Paramatta outfit, but more importantly they were rolling themselves into a finals showdown with the defending premiers Brisbane.

It stole something from the Raiders. They’d rebounded quicker than anyone thought they could, largely on the back of one of the greatest seasons by a halfback ever in 1993. Sticky was doing everything, the best player in the competition. This was one of the great rugby league sides ever ready for a coronation that would involve them rolling over their only peers in their prime.

Without him the Raiders were rudderless. A side that had perfected the play of almost every position had no solution when the fulcrum of the side was removed. Sticky was just too unique, too talented. Too fucking brilliant and better than Alan Langer (sorry, that’s another column). The Milk tried backup Steve Stone at 7 – it didn’t work. They tried reserve grader Trevor Schoedel at halfback and the result was similar. By the time the finals rolled around the running joke was no one in the Raiders team could count to six – which shows you jokes about rugby league players are still dumber than their targets. Lozza playing 7 and Mal playing 6 was the result and the Raiders went out in straight sets.

Sticky returned in 1994, and you know how that went. But Sticky’s ankle stole something more than a chance at a grand final. It took a chance at undisputed legendary status. I tell people the 1994 Canberra Raiders were the best rugby league team ever; the case is that much stronger if it’s part of a back-to-back run.

  1. Six Again

You know what happened. You may have been there like I was. You may have been watching on a television. You know the equivocation that followed and how idiotic it all was. Here are some facts.

First, Ben Cummins got it wrong. He signalled six again. The rule book says once a decision is made it can’t be changed. You can say what you want but that can’t be changed. It was a mistake made by the referee. Arguably the biggest in the history of grand finals.

Secondly, if the Raiders had a full set of six on the line, they may not have scored. That is unquestionable; they were up against one of the best defences in recent history, and had 30 minutes of dominance in the second half and not much to show for it in terms of points. They couldn’t score when Cooper Cronk was sin-binned. They couldn’t score when Rapana was open with no one on him.

But! The Raiders would have almost certainly left that set with a field goal attempt. Given how Aidan Sezer was slotting them against the Sharks weeks earlier, I would have backed him to give the Milk a one point lead. A one point lead with 8 minutes to go and the ball is a very good place to be. While the above list points to the precariousness of that situation, the 2019 Canberra Raiders were built differently.

I left the ground that night so empty. It was hard to process that we were so close, and the opportunity to win a grand final for the first time in 25 years had been stolen by incompetence. But I woke the next day proud. Proud at what the team had achieved over 2019, proud of the way they stood up and fought against the empire. Even in their worst moments, the Canberra Raiders could still make me smile.

There it is. That’s why I love them.

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