The Canberra Raiders 12-10 victory over the Parramatta Eels was sheer, bloody-minded courage. It was born from an unending will to persist, even when they had every reason not to. Possession, position and fortune went against them, but they wore every punch offered, straightened their spine, squinted, and went in for more. They were stubborn and they were desperate. They had no right to win, and yet here we are. It’s enough to make a broken man’s heart full.
Only a brave person would say they saw this coming. The Milk have been much improved in recent weeks, but beating the Sharks, and a Trbojevic-less Eagles never had the feeling of a corner turned. Sure it was better than losing, but it always felt like a test from a better side would prove how fleeting the moment was. The Eels have been smashing mediocre football teams for fun (their last 11 wins have all been by 13 or more points), and for them the conversation has been about how deep in the top four they’ll be. With Canberra’s short turnaround, injury list and general disappointing form this season, it was meant to be a tune up for the Eels before bigger problems in coming weeks. Instead they got a battle of wills and they were found wanting.
This victory was built on defence. It had to be, they barely had the ball. The Eels had 62 per cent of possession. That kind of imbalance can end a game in ten minutes in Peter V’Landys’ NRL, but Canberra wore it for the entire game. They had the ball for a full 14 minutes less than Parramatta, and made near ten sets worth of tackles more. This was often their own fault. Jordan Rapana and Semi Valemei made errors cleaning up kicks. Corey Harawira-Naera, Emre Guler and Sam Williams dropped ball in good position. And in between the Eels picked up repeat sets (2) and enough set restarts that Canberra were constantly battling for position and possession.
Despite the kind of disadvantage that would normally destroy them, they persisted. They had so many opportunities to pack it in. When Josh Papalii left the field never to return in the first half, a Raiders team from earlier in the year would have capitulated. When the Eels scored their first try, a stunning try that came against the run of play, they could have given up. When the video referee gave a try with mere minutes to go despite Dylan Brown being obviously offside they could have faded again. When Maika Sivo, arguably one of the greatest finishers in modern football, was open with nothing but space in front of him and a game to win, they could have taken the L and been proud of their efforts. At each point they kept scrapping to win every moment safe in the knowledge that when those efforts were added up, it would mean victory.
Despite being two players short, Canberra were brutal in defence. That in itself is a miracle. Throughout the season they’ve struggled with fatigue at key moments. Yet with only a few minutes from Papa, and with Sutton injured, they crowded the Eels for space, brutalising their middles, bashing their ballplayers. The Green Machine’s line-speed was fast and consistent throughout the game. They were tenacious. Even when they seemed tired, they kept tearing up together. They laid hit after hit on their opposition, as if demanding a fight that Parramatta took too long to get involved in. Sia Soliola bashed King Gutho. Hudson Young somehow made 55 tackles, often coming in off his edge, chasing the play across the ground seemingly making every tackle on a set. Joe Tapine made 45, and the Eels felt every one of them. Even Josh Hodgson and Tom Starling, the players that the Parramatta big men sought out to run at, made them regret it. Hodgson laid out Sivo, and Starling put several good hits on. It was powerful, it was fearless, and it was coming from the supposed weak spots in Canberra’s defence. It was the kind of blatant disregard for one’s own safety and comfort that epitomises true courage.
And it was brilliant. The goal line defence was astounding. On three separate occasions the Eels camped on Canberra’s goal-line for multiple sets. At one point they’d had 20 tackles in the Milk’s redzone to zero, and hadn’t scored a point. Weeks ago it would have been a torrent of tries. On this occasion the Milk kept turning them away. The middle pushed up and out and forced the Eels away from the posts. The Eels desperately tried to get Isaiah Papali’i isolated on Sam Williams. On at least three occasions they did, and he held on, either to a leg, an arm or whatever he could, long enough to stop the Eels dynamo, or for help to arrive. It was desperate and brilliant. Harley Smith-Shields and Seb Kris supported him, and both kept making smart decisions to help in. On the other side of the field the Eels tried to get young gun Penisi outside Jarrod Croker. The Raiders captain was never worried. Valemei kept making smart decisions to jam in, more than once foiling a sweep movement when he was done for numbers. The defence was as well organised as it’s been since Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad went down, and Rapana must receive due credit for that.
It took a play somewhere between perfection and a miracle, and a blatant offside, for the Eels to score, such was the wall they faced on the goal line. Hudson Young and Jarrod Croker should have brought down Blake Ferguson, and it was about the only defensive mistake Canberra made all game. And then with the game on the line and nothing but grass in front of Sivo, Harley Smith-Shields and Jordan Rapana showed the determination to somehow close the space, and power Sivo out. I thought Rapana might be charged with a penalty try for his hit, but justice was served.
When they did get the ball, the Raiders were conservative. While the Eels punched side to side, Canberra kept it closer to the ruck, adopting much the same game plan that had won the Sea Eagles game. They never got on top of their opposition pack in the same way, as much due to the possession disadvantage. Joe Tapine (15 runs 144m and 2 offloads) had his third very good game in a row. Emre Guler (10 for 107m) was good bookending the game. The pack performed, but their job in this game was tackling. To this end, the back five were astounding in the amount of work they got through. Rapana (25 runs for 256m), Smith-Shields (15 for 151m), Valemei (19 for 212m) did the lions-share of work on exit sets, allowing the middles a brief respite before tackling their hearts out again. It seemed fitting that Rapana’s dummy-half run was one of Canberra’s only two tries for the game. All three were brilliant, but Rapana was their leader, an indefatigable monster tearing into, and through, the defence every time he got the ball. Combine that with his organisation of the defence, his try (and game) saving efforts, and his brilliant save of a 40/20, and it was simply one of the best games he’s played for the club.
Like recent weeks the Milk’s attack was hardly penetrative. They dropped too much ball, and they never won the middle enough in attack to properly shift from it. When they did, their attacking movements were unstructured, and unfamiliar, that kind of side to side passing that eventually just runs out of space as defences jam in on it (though given the lack of continuity in the side can you expect anything else?). They never looked like going around the Eels, and they never did. Their best look was using edge runners and turning offloads into something more. Harawira-Naera (11 for 106m, 4 offloads) was again the most threatening aspect of Canberra’s attack, and earned a deserved try running a great line off a Sam Williams ball. The Raiders continued to make use of Starling and Josh Hodgson together, and it was the Englishmen’s excellent ball-play at first receiver that held Reed Mahoney’s attention, allowing Sam Williams to put Harawira-Naera into the space that grew around Papali’i outside the Eels hooker.
It was a decidedly 2019 game plan. Hit the middle, kick to the corner and smash them in defence. We said after the Manly game it would be harder to make this plan work against a good side, and that was proven wrong in this game. If there serious about more, they’ll need to find more fluidity and variety in attack. The good news is that in the last three weeks the Raiders have shown they have more arrows in their quiver than just this, and are possibly capable of more.
They’ll need to improve again over the coming weeks, but after this game I’m ready to be hurt again. I don’t have the words to properly convey how proud this victory made me. Canberra have been through hell this year. They’ve done every damn thing to get in their own way, had plenty go against them, and could have quit long ago. Most of us had, and given how they’re are the people that have to put their bodies through the wringer each week, you’d have hardly blamed them if they phoned the rest of the season in. But I guess that’s courage. The knowledge that your going to take a beating, and turning up anyway, chin up, heart full.
They’ve been to hell, and they’ve clawed their way out. That kind of resilience has been a hallmark of this side in recent years, but it felt like an old friend this year. Something fondly remembered, but so divorced from your current reality it felt depressing to think about. Yet here it was again, just like old times. Grab a beer and let’s chat. That they’ve turned this on stuck away from their families, away from their homes and comforts, with every reason to pack it in is admirable. They lost Papalii and Sutton and barely touched the ball. That the will to fight is there after everything the Raiders have suffered, at their own hands, and at those of fate and circumstance, is a testament to the mental toughness of the squad. Credit must go to Coach Stuart. He may have been as responsible as anyone for the chaos of this season, but to bring this team together with this kind of heart is remarkable.
Nothing may come of this – Canberra could easily lose to whoever is on the other side of a 9 day break (I want to say the Knights?). Their collapse this season started with a confronting loss to the Eels in round six. Who’s to say the turnaround isn’t signalled by a victory against them? Drink it in. This may be as good as it gets. But with that heart, that undying spirit, that bravery, perhaps there’s still noise to be made. Even if it isn’t, at least they refused to lie down, and while they were still alive they chose to fight. That’s courage.