A week is a long time in a lot of things, but in rugby league it’s practically a lifetime.
Canberra’s destiny is firmly in their own hands after the Brisbane Broncos spectacular collapse over the last week. In that time not only have they lost twice, but they’ve suffered defeats so massive that their for-and-against is now practically equal to that of the Raiders.
Is that the sound of hope? Ignore it. It’s siren song will only bring you pain.
I kid of course, because since Thursday that genie is firmly out of the bottle and I’m arguing with it to wish for more wishes. It no longer matters that the Roosters have removed themselves from the discussion. All that Canberra needs to do now is win. That’s it. Beat a broken Manly side. Take the sword to a Tigers team that checked out weeks out. Do what you’re supposed to.
And, like the genie we’ve let out the bottle would tell you, there’s the rub my friend. The Raiders winning is never guaranteed. As we touched on in the Rumble earlier in the week, it’s probably harder for this team to win we’re they meant to. I get it, expectation is hard. Winning in Melbourne when no one expects you is fun but no skin off your nose when it doesn’t happen. Actually having to play with the same effort and intensity in order to beat a team as bad as Newcastle? Unthinkable.
In a sense the fan base in the same boat as the team. It hurts more when you actually admit to yourself you care. I’ve spent so much time assuming this season would end the week before the finals that finding out it might not feels like cheating. It’s been a white knuckle ride so far, what’s another two weeks going to change?
Of course that is going to be a tougher than the narrative would have you believe. The last time Manly lost to the Raiders was 1919 when war time and the Spanish flu decimated the Sydney’s team roster (can someone fact check that for me? Tim?). Missing players has never been an issue for the Sea-Eagles when it comes to beating the Milk – they’ve beaten the Raiders with and without Trbojevics. They’ve won when we were in chaos and when they were. The life-time record of 21 losses out of 35 games feels a little better than it actually is. Manly have a habit of beating the Milk when it hurts the most, like ending the home win streak in 1995ish when a young Dan made the error of sitting in a new spot at Bruce Stadium, and thus single-handedly causing Sticky to throw that intercept to Geoff Toovey… maybe? I forget. We lost. And the Raiders felt mortal for the first time in a long time.
More recently they’ve played the role of reality check. In round 4 this year they reminded the Milk just how far they were from the top. In 2019 they played the role of grounding the Raiders after their season-defining victory at Melbourne. Addin Fanua-Blake fake crying will forever be seared in my memory alongside Mick Ennis doing the Viking clap as things that shouldn’t have annoyed me, an actual adult, but did. The point is Manly teams do well against the Green Machine, and a trip to Canberra minus a few players is fooling no-one. Lachlan Croker will have a career game. Daly Cherry-Evans and Keiran Foran will play smarter than their green opposition. There is no escaping it – this will not be gifted to the Milk. They will have to earn it.
So let’s not even get ahead of assuming victory this weekend. Completing this game, let alone the next two, with victories in place, and the necessary for and against points in place to play in the finals will be a minor miracle.
Give a thought then to the hearts of Canberra fans around the world, from Lyneham to London, Tuggeranong to Timbuktu. This pathway may have got clearer, and even easier to travail. But that doesn’t mean the Raiders will be walking into the finals. At least if they do manage to get there, they’ll have earned it.
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