“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness”Roman Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, speaking to Rabs Warren in about 55 AD
Despite resting a host of top-line players, the Canberra Raiders did everything they could to ensure the easiest path to the last day of the season last weekend. Unfortunately, the rest of the competition conspired to make it as hard as possible.
Souths (or maybe the Roosters) hurt the Raiders first on Friday when the Bunnies dismantled the Bondi boys. Combined with the Eels defeating the Tigers (or the Tigers choking? comme ci comme ca), it not only ruled the Milk about of the second chance of a top four finish, but it also put the Raiders on the hard side of the draw – i.e. away from the sluggish and insecure Eels.
This of course means that instead of essentially getting arguably the two least in-form teams on the way to a preliminary final, if the Raiders want to win the competition that the most likely outcome is that they’ll need to beat the Roosters, Panthers and the Storm to do it. And that assumes that they’ll handle more-dangerous-than-you-think Sharks.
Of course, many will point to the Roosters loss to the Bunnies and say that’s a vulnerable side. I can’t agree with that. To me Easts remain favourites for the title until someone has removed them from the competition (hopefully the Raiders). Canberra have beaten the Sombreros once already this season, and went toe-to-toe with them recently before Josh Papalii had to rest, and Havili and Harawira-Naera were more influential on the result than the Raiders would have desired. If they are the opposition for week two they will still be favourites against the Raiders, but it would not be an impossible task.
If the Raiders get past the Sharks, and then the Roosters, then they’ll simply have the most consistent side of the millennium waiting for them. The Storm have been brilliant this season, and are a more developed side offering more variety in attack after Jahrome Hughes and Ryan Papenhuyzen have had more time to acclimatise themselves in the starting line up. But Canberra have matched up with them inexplicably well in recent times, confounding Melbourne’s organised defence with the variability offered by our creative players outside the spine. The Raiders have proven time and time again recently that they can take on the Storm. This is a problem I hope the Raiders face.
Of course, even if they do get through to the grand final, awaiting them would be the Panthers (or the Roosters or maybe even the Bunnies…let’s not chase to many threads). They’ve been the darlings of rugby league this year, playing with pace and connection that has overwhelmed sides (including the Green Machine) throughout the season. The Panthers would be unbackable favourites, with almost no weakness to speak of. But for me at least, one question remains. Everything has gone to plan for Penright this season. They’ve beaten everyone, good or bad, and rarely looked troubled doing it.
But since the Covid break they’ve only played two games against what I would call contenders – round 6 against the Storm, and round 13 against the Raiders. They’ve beaten other top 8 sides along the way (the Eels, Bunnies and Sharks) and done so easily. But not since the Storm in round 6 have they been involved in a proper arm wrestle. The Panthers have banked fast starts on overwhelming sides, and never been in a situation where things weren’t going according to plan for any serious period of time. As the famous Mike Tyson saying goes, “everyone has a plan til they get smacked in the mouth”. If Canberra get there, the experience of last year, combined with the resilience they’ve continually displayed over 2020, would lead me to believe the people’s team, the Canberra Raiders, could be the team to deliver that shot to Penrith’s proverbial chops.
Each of these games outside of the Sharks would put the Raiders firmly as the underdog. This Canberra side can beat any of these sides on their day. The challenge is beat all three back-to-back-to-back. That’s a bumpy road at best.
But for now that’s all hypotheticals and sports dreams. In this real world of ours the Canberra Raiders have a more important task facing them this coming weekend in the form of a much different Cronulla Sharks team to the one they just faced. It’s finals footy, and it’s always a battle. Even if they get past Cronulla, they face a treacherous path to get to the promised land. It will be difficult, and it will take every ounce of their ability and strength to get there. But that will just make victory all the more sweet.