A few months ago, I, like many Canberra Raiders fans, were worried the people’s team was in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
They had lost to a spectacularly unimpressive Warriors team. The Bulldogs, who to that point of the season were averaging someone like 9 points a game. And we were all sitting here worried they wouldn’t be able to overcome them. It wasn’t performative. The Raiders had lost five in a row and it felt silly to assume they could handle a meat pie let alone win a football game. They scraped past the Dogs without Jack Wighton, holding their opposition to four points in a game that marked a turning point in fortunes, if not in style. Phew. Maybe we wouldn’t win the spoon after all.
Now some 16 rounds later the Raiders head into the last week of the season with their fate not only in their hands, but they are in prime position to play finals. I have been critical of a lot this season, and the Raiders have made hard work of a difficult situation. However you want to dice it, the team has struggled oftentimes this year, and still somehow clocked 13 wins. It may end up with 14, one less than 2019, and by Stuart’s own admission, round 24 was the closest thing to a complete performance the team had put together all season. That’s they’ve got so far without a functional offence, with glaring holes in the right side of their defence, and a bumbling husband’s inability to do the right thing at the right time.
But that they are in the position they are is a rare feat. The Milk may not remain focused throughout a game but they kept their focus this season. A project like resurrection doesn’t require one good speech or a single half-time blow up to save a game. It requires careful management, and credit must go to Coach Stuart’s singular focus. He may have had a big a role as any in creating the trench Canberra were in after 8 rounds, but he was also responsible for getting them out.
It also speaks to the potential and talent of this team, which is part of the reason many have been frustrated with the side (and the coach) this season. Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii are both Origin players. Hudson Young will be. Joe Tapine might be the best prop in the competition. There’s a host of other players that will represent their country come the World Cup in October. There is enough quality in this side that they should have been able to compete all year. But again, if my dog had wings and a horn on his head he’d be a unicorn.
Of course, the equation now is very simple. Win and in is the story, even though it’s not quite right. 43 points separate them and the Broncos, but given Brisbane have scored 18 points and had 113 scored against them in the last two weeks the 43 points feels like a small part of the story. Rumours have started emerging from Red Hill this weekend like smoke under the door of a house fire. It’s a familiar smell because it’s caught Canberra at different times in the last two years. Brisbane are absolutely back against the wall right now and god knows a Queenslander with nothing to lose is a thing to be feared. No sane person who bank on
The Raiders will almost certainly go into the final game of the NRL regular season needing to win. I wish it wasn’t the case. I would prefer if it was guaranteed by then, but then that’s why they play the games. If you have to win a game, doing so against the actual team likely to take home the wooden spoon (unless the Titans and Tigers undergo some Raiders/Broncos level change of fortunes next week) is probably the way you’d want to do it. That it will be a white-knuckle ride until that game is over, but then that’s the story of this year. Even when it’s meant to be easy it isn’t.
But I tell you what, it’s a whole lot more fun than playing for the spoon.
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