What an absolute prick of a year.
The first year we awarded the heralded Sportress “best moment of the year” Josh Papalii ran over Damian Cook, proving that truth and beauty can co-exist. It made our job so easy. Then 2020 happened. Like so much about the early times of the pandemic, it was scary, but we muddled through. Sammy Williams gave a speech, galvanised our souls, and the Baby Raiders gave us what we needed.
There were so many other good moments in those years that we could have dug even deeper. 2019 was full of glory, and we could have chosen anything from the Viking clap at the grand final, to Charnze saying the only bit of him that wasn’t hurting was his heart. In 2020 we could have chosen the dynasty enders in the semi, or the first victory against the Roosters, when Josh Papalii again roamed free.
But 2021 was the opposite. It was a shithole on and off the field. The team collapsed. There was in-fighting. Several stalwarts were let go. The Raiders did not succeed. The world – both Raiders and otherwise – felt held together by a thread, which seems to be gradually unfurling as we come into the new year. Instead of optimism about a return to “normal” and inevitable rise of the Canberra Raiders, all we have is anxiety and questions. Some of them relate to Covid. Some of them relate to what an NRL season will look like next season. And if we can be so small minded to just focus on rugby league, if you feel better about life and the Raiders heading into 2022 than you did heading into 2021, I would like you to make a cup of the coffee you’re drinking for me. It better have plenty of the good stuff.
When the future is foreboding like this I like to hold on to a bit of hope. A skerrick of information that points to a road that will take us to safety. Amongst the darkness it can be not so much a guiding light, but the flicker of memory that something better is possible. Proof that the fight is still there. Evidence that the people that care won’t give up, so we shouldn’t.
There were few moments like that in 2021. Not “Josh Papalii cleansing the soul of thousands of Raiders’ fans” big. Not even Papalii (in July of 2020) and then George Williams (in the semi of 2020) making the best fullback in the competition look like a park footy player. But there were little glimpses of the potential. Little glimpses of character. Moments where one thought “hey maybe we can build on this.”
I want to highlight two moments. I know it’s a cop out, but to me they are complementary. One showing the tenacity of the present hasn’t left, the other highlighting the promise of the future is great. Separate they may just be moments. Together they represent that maybe footy isn’t just pain disguised as obstacles. Maybe, just maybe, things can better.
The first moment I want to highlight is the promise of the future as represented by Xavier Savage’s run against the Sharks.
It started with a Papalii hit up (like all good things do) and an off-load to Savage floating out the back of the play like any good fullback. The rookie phenomenon caught the ball, jinked, propped and juked through a crowded ruck defence like a rabbit burning through the brush. He tore through a hole, running away from defenders reaching for him like they were hailing a bus. It was too little too late. He was gone, a few passes later the Raiders scored, and for a brief moment there was thoughts of the capturing lightening in a bottle and setting it free on a football field.
It was a small sign, but one nonetheless, that a promise existed in the next generation of Milkmen that could mean 2022 was not just better than what had been reality in 2021, but more exciting too. You can be quick in straight lines, but this was more. He was fast but he was also agile – an open threat to the rest of the competition that he give him an inch and he’ll make you look silly. That’s a big deal.
The second moment was the yin to Savage’s yang. With mere seconds left in the round 19 game against the Eels, the enemy spread the ball wide and looked to have an overlap, the mountainous Maika Sivo with the ball and nothing but air between him and the line. Without a tackle, a loss would result and the Raiders season would die. Jordan Rapana, the Milk’s 5th choice fullback, tore from the A gap in defence across the field and used all the might of his body to push the larger Sivo into touch.
When Rapana body checked Maika Sivo into oblivion he saved the game. It capped a courageous effort in which the Raiders held out the more favoured Eels with 80 minutes of the kind of resilience that we’d hardly seen all year. For a week at least he saved the season, returning hope that maybe deep down the club could still find that little glow of success we’d become used to over 2019 and 2020. But more than just those temporary things, he revealed something more permanent. He showed that Canberra hadn’t given up, that they wouldn’t give up, no matter how chaotic and ridiculous the season had been. They were inept. They were poorly prepared. They were were unable to muster a game plan appropriate for the game in front of them. But despite all this Rapana showed that they were still willing to sacrifice their bodies at the alter of possible.
This moment was so complementary of the Savage moment because it reminded that the hope that had sprung from his wheels could be supported and moulded by a grit and determination needed to be resilient in the face of the very difficulties they faced in 2021 and will face in the year to come. These two moments together were a promise of possibility. That maybe the talent, and the grind, are still there. Maybe they’ll work together in 2022. Maybe 2019’s all-for-one wasn’t as far away as it seemed this year. We can only hope.
And so as we head into the uncertainty of the coming year, let’s look back at these two moments. They were just speckles of light, but for now they can provide the same warmth of hope. Things can get better. I hope they do.