The Canberra Raiders 22-18 victory over the Sydney Roosters was a triumph of courage and persistence, and one of the best wins in club history. They Raiders took on a dynasty the only way they know how – by staring it straight in the eye and taking it on face-to-face. And in doing so, they also proved they are a real contender for the premiership.
Trying to get a handle on either side’s form-line coming into this bout was a fool’s game. The Green Machine had beaten the Sharks in the least convincing but also easiest victory you will see. Who were the Roosters? The team that capitulated in gobsmacking fashion against the Bunnies? Or the two-time balls of fire that had torn the league apart for much of the season? Was a one point loss against the Panthers evidence they were finding their feet? Or evidence they’d wasted their best shot? Commentators said this game was a week or two earlier than it should have been, but that’s half the point of week two of the finals. You get to sort out who’s actually serious. Sometimes both teams are and you get a barnburner.
The Milk didn’t hide how they wanted to win this game. They took on the Roosters middle with glee. Josh Papalii (18 carries for 190m and 75 post contact metres) was brilliant in all of his stints, but his first forays in the game set the tone. He took on the line like a tap-dancing golem, dragging players with him as he lumbered down the field under their weight. Joe Tapine (16 for 171m, 62 pcm) was dynamic. He and Papalii never got turned away, and because of their feet, and their strength, they got between the line, and the Raiders always got a quick ruck. They were well supported by Hudson Young (21 for 150m), who’s development in the last few weeks continues to astound. He’s as willing to take a hard carry as he is able to tear down an edge. It’s a rare gift.
These three middles were supported by a simply astounding display of ball running by Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. It was one of his best games for the club, and one that should be remembered for along time. Normally backs do hard work coming off their own line. It gives the forwards a rest, and a chance to get back onside after a kick return. Charnze refused to wait for this, and instead involved himself, almost as a third prop, taking scything carries in and around ruck defenders, often multiple times in a set. He had 170 plus metres in the first half alone, and finished with nearly 280 metres, of which only 90 were from kick returns. He was a critical part of so many attacking movements by supporting ball runners. For so long we’ve wanted him to become a ball-player on the edge. Instead we should embrace what he is; a running talent, able to start a play, support it and slice through ruck defences unable to match his agility. He was so impressive in this game, on both sides of the ball. This performance should be remembered with the best of Gary Belcher and Brett Mullins. If he wasn’t already Canberra royalty, he’s there now. The rest of his back brethren got through plenty of work in yardage; Valemei had 166m, Cotric 142m and Rapana 146m. But none were as scintillating and threatening as Charnze.
These four in particular dominated the Roosters middle, and winning the middle led to points. Papalii side-stepped Boyd Cordner like a outside back, before powering over three defenders to score. He had the space to move because George Williams tipped Elliott Whitehead the ball on an under line, which surprised the Roosters defence, putting them on the back foot and giving Papalii the breathing space he needed to get to the line. Tapine did the same to Cordner, making him look foolish with a step, before palming everyone else in the Roosters edge defence away to rampage to the line. It was a breathtaking microcosm of Tapine’s fulfilment of his potential. He is the strongest, and the fastest, and when he realises it he’s almost unstoppable.
In between Nicoll-Klokstad picked up a ball from dummy-half and started one of the most aesthetically pleasing Canberra tries in years. Papa threw an offload, Bateman backed up, Charnze was there again, then Rapana, and finally George Williams scored, while nearly kicking down the post. It was magnificant, and it came because the Raiders were tearing such a holes in the previously vaunted Roosters defence that it looked like a bagel.
These weren’t the only good things to come from dominating the middle. Jack Wighton had a field day, and tested the Roosters’ right edge all game. He ran menacingly (13 carries for 138m), almost always poking his head through, and on multiple occasions getting into a little bit of space. On the left he and Whitehead worked over the Roosters defence with a suite of movements that could have resulted in a bevy of points on another night. He trusted his outside men in space on the last, and it almost always paid off. He had one try disallowed because the video ref decided Flanagan should be rewarded for being bamboozled by Croker’s decoy run. When he scored finally with 12 minutes to go, it felt reward for his output in this game, rather than just a opportunistic effort after Tedesco’s mistake.
In response the Roosters didn’t try to win the middle conventionally. Instead they tried to beat Canberra with second phase play. They dropped off 20 offloads (to Canberra’s six), an astounding number. No team handles second-phase play well, defences simply aren’t designed to. It saps energy, drags defenders around the ball and puts pressure on edges to solve the riddles that are invariably sent their way. When those questions come from the most organised and cohesive edge attack in the competition, it can put any defence in tough situations.
It contributed to the Raiders missing tackles (42 in total – the Roosters missed 45). It reflected how hard the Milk found it to bring to a stop the constantly changing point of attack. More than once a Roosters player got the ball from an offload, and punched through a hole, or stood at arms’ length from exhausted defenders trying to find a way to make another tackle. Plenty of good defenders were forced to make tackle after tackle against an attack that refused to go down. Whitehead missed nine, Sia Soliola five, Hudson Young four and John Bateman two. For each of them that’s a month’s worth of misses. And while those numbers were high, the Raiders’ tenacity to keep coming and to hold this second phase play out was inspiring. Time and time again they were out on their feet, and they kept finding a way to end attacking movements.
Only one try ended up coming directly from this run-and-dump approach, and it made the game close late. The other tries came from testing the Milk’s edges. Many worried about the makeshift Canberra right edge defence facing off against Keary/Cordner/Morris et al, and it was a wild ride. They scored once when they didn’t have the numbers, but Williams and Bateman decided to tackle the same man, and all of a sudden Cotric was choosing between jamming in or making an intercept. He did neither, and the Roosters made it game on going into the break.
This wasn’t the only time the right edge looked patchy, but every other time someone made a stunning effort tackle to save the day. Cotric made several try savers, once bringing Morris down close to the line when he was one man verse a million, another time bundling him into touch because Nic is massive and Josh Morris is just an old man. Charnze made one of the greatest try-saving tackles late in the game, tearing across the park with cramps to take Morris into touch. In between it was never quite tight, but it was good enough.
Similarly the other edge was hardly perfect; Charnze and Smelly made a try saver after Wighton and Croker took the same man late in the first half. Semi, Whitehead and Croker each made critical tackles on a (frankly stunning) Joey Manu as he terrorised them in the second half. They only failed when all three were unable to bring him down in broken play.
Normally we would harp on this. There’s no doubt it has to get better and the Storm saw an advantage, particularly on the right, it can potentially exploit. However, it’s hard to separate these misses from the style of play they faced and from the sheer exhaustion they felt chasing the ball around the park. For a team with 20 offloads, and a lot of side-to-side attack, the Roosters handed over relatively little possession. Rather the ball hit the ground a lot, and more often than not bounced back to the Roosters. The edges kept having to fix problems created by the broken plat, and it wasn’t pretty, but it was enough. At each calling the defence ignored its exhaustion and made one more tackle. It was beyond inspiring. It was something to believe in.
It’s evidence that Canberra can get it done against the top flight of this competition. That the only thing that has stopped them being considered a contender this season is the lack of opportunities at the back end of the season to prove it. They’ve beaten the Roosters and the Storm before this game, but everyone had forgotten it. Now, the Raiders stand as one of four teams that can win this competition. They face a side they’ve beaten at their home before this year, and beaten in big games before this year. The Raiders will not be favourites, but they will have no fear.
A preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm next Friday is a just reward for this win, and for everything they’ve gone through this year. From being smoked out of pre-season, to taking planes, trains and automobiles around Australia in order to play ‘home’ games further away from their home than their opposition. They’ve beaten the challenges of a Covid break, injuries to some of their most crucial players, and all kinds of outrageous fortune. At each juncture they’ve faced the bludgeonings of chance, heads bloody, but unbowed. Against the Roosters they showed this again. We will forever be proud.