Ours is a game that valorises success. Those that stand at the forefront of our memory are usually the people that did it best at the highest level. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Legends are made for based on merit. But in a team game it can mean those that never got a chance to prove themselves get left out of the discussion. The difference between a legend and not is often one based on opportunity, and good players, worthy players, get left to the vagaries of time and memory if we only value the last game of the season.
So what if there was an excuse to talk about all those great Raiders who never got a chance to test themselves on the first Sunday of October? What if for a second we let the Meningas, the Daleys and the Stuarts step to the side and let the others get a bit of shine for a day.
We initially had a crack at this early on in the pandemic, like most ‘brilliant’ time-wasting and largely pointless ideas. We were inspired by the SportingNews named a “best team to never win a grand final”. It’s vaguely interesting across the league, but for the Raiders that would just mean the best post-1994 team – i.e the team that had their soul stolen by an arm waved and retracted. Interesting, but you’re hardly grasping for names. So instead we decided to narrow the parameters, and make it the best that didn’t make it. You eliminate much of the best two eras of Canberra footy, Fun? Sounds fun. Let’s do it.
A few rules: by “never play a grand final” I’m including grand finals played for other teams. That means Brad Drew (Eels 2001) is out, as is Frank Paul Nu’uausala (Roosters 2013). Shaun Fensom is out (Cowboys 2017) which is a sad for so many reasons and now I need a drink.
The other rule is I’m mostly basing this on how they played for the Raiders. So while Dave Taylor’s 9 game stint in Canberra was memorable, I’m not considering the form that earned him a representative career.
Fullback: Clinton Schifcofske
Schifcofske was legit. During his stay in Canberra, he was the most exciting thing in Matt Elliott’s conservative attack. He lead the Raiders in points, played Origin (2006, my favourite Origin series). He won so many close games on his own back that it feels counter-Milk in hindsight. Pick your favourite – slotting penalty goals to beat the Tigers in golden point in 2006. The penalty after the siren followed by the golden point field goal against the Panthers. My favourite was when he slotted back-to-back field goals to win a heart-stopper 30-29 against the Warriors in front of me and 8000 other loyal fans in ’04. Oh, and his drunken lair when he lined up a kick was perfection.
Others considered: The Raiders have had some great fullbacks. Josh Dugan could be here too and I wouldn’t give you the side-eye. Mark McLinden was excitement that did things things you didn’t expect (but I guess he did take the field during a grand final). David Milne ran in straight lines and I loved it, and one time he served me on McHappy Day and was surprised I knew who he was. Love that guy. Xavier Savage has his whole career ahead of him. I hope he’s never on this list.
Wingers: Lesley Vanikolo and Sean Hoppe
Both of these wingers feel like a fever dream. Lesley Vanikolo was massive and fast, a harbinger of the coming age of the winger-cum-prop. He should have spent more time in the NRL but scooted off to the Super League early. Consequently he’s sometimes forgotten in the conversations about great Raiders’ wingers.
Hoppe signed a letter of intent with the Warriors after a stellar start to his career with Canberra over 1992 and 1993. Consequently the Raiders shipped him off to North’s for 1994, Kenny Nagas established himself and the rest is history.
Others considered: I know it was you, Edrick. You broke my heart.
Centres: Joel Monaghan and Adam Mogg
Joel Monaghan was the Green Machine’s lone last tackle option for the longest time. We’d get into the attacking zone, work it around a bit, and then kick it high for him and hope. He came down with it way more than he should have. He played Origin, and deserved more representative opportunities than he got.
Adam Mogg was proof that most of us just need someone to believe in us in order for us to reach our potential. A useful defensive centre, a few origin games on wing really unleashed his ball playing abilities. All of a sudden he was taking the ball at first receiver, ducking and diving across the field looking for ball runners.
Others considered: I tossed up putting Josh Dugan here, but he never really played centre for the Raiders.. Phil Graham was electric in a bit of space, even if defence wasn’t his best skill. BRENKO! Marshall Chalk (who could fill in a fullback and second row which I guess says a lot about how the Raiders of the Elliott era played). I was keen to get Peter Jackson in here because I just feel like he’s a forgotten man in the Raiders history, but he played in the ’87 grand final. Matt Timoko and Seb Kris are theoretically ready to take a spot, and that’s exciting and depressing at the same time.
Halves: Terry Campese and George Williams
This was the easiest bit for me. Terry Campese is a goddamn Canberra hero. He took a side that was at its lowest, having seen its prodigal Dennis the Menace walk out the door, and turned it into fire. He played Origin, for Australia, nearly dragging the Raiders to a preliminary final until his knee collapsed under the pressure of it all.
George Williams was really good. And then he needed to go home. He’ll probably come back soon. Meanwhile I’m just missing this.
Other considered: Sam Williams is probably one that many will question. George Williams was better but how do you rate 18 months of service against a lifetime of Canberra? Ivan Henjak is sometimes forgotten as part of the early Raiders, but his role in 1987 rules him out. Blake Austin was exciting but tackled like he was made of noodles. Andrew McFadden, Michael Dobson, Marc Herbert, Josh McCrone and Mitch Cornish are all people I thought were going to be better than they were.
Lock: Alan Tongue
The Raiders have some very good locks in their time. Brad Clyde, Dean Lance, Jason Croker, Shaun Fensom. They all played grand finals. Alan Tongue is a Canberra legend, possibly the toughest human whoever played rugby league, willing to do whatever it took on the field, and off it.
Others considered: Most of the great Raiders’ locks played in the big dance. Clyde, Lance, Croker, Fensom and Tapine have all been there. Do you care for a year of Adam Elliott? Not over the great man.
Backrow: Hudson Young and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs
I put Hudson in this team because he should have played in 2019, but you know, he got a bit gougey late in that season. It seems so foreign and long ago now. People were talking like he’d be out of the league and now they’re talking about whether he should have made the Kangaroos squad (Yes. Yes he should have).
When Tom Learoyd-Lahrs was healthy he was such a damaging runner who despite being massive, was mobile enough to play on the edge (and even started a game at centre for the Raiders – the 2000s were a wild time). He never met his potential, but still managed to play four games for the Blues and four for Australia.
Others considered: Joel Thompson was hear previously but got kicked off by Hudson. Corey Harawira-Naera could be but I hope he never makes it. I was always convinced Joe Picker would join Joel Thompson and Shaun Fensom and make one of the great Raiders’ backrows. Trevor Thurling was a powerful and fast ball-runner who spent too much time playing off the bench. Bronson Harrison is another who I always loved.
Props: Paul Vaughan and John Lomax
Johnny Lomax, like Hudson Young I guess, is only here on a technicality. He was part of one the most underrated forward packs in rugby league history. He should have been part of a winning grand final in 1994 but alas, the judiciary intervened.
Paul Vaughan was an amazing player for the Raiders, and should have been with the club forever. But something happened between him and the club and he was let go to St. George. Vaughan was excellent there too, until he did something stupid off-field – and this time the idiocy was there for all of us to see. Now he’s in England because the Dogs didn’t want to keep him around. He’s too good for the Super League. It’s a shame he never got out of his own way.
Others considered: It’s quite a list here too. Shannon Boyd, Luke Davico, David Shillington, Dane Tilse, Troy Thompson, Junior Paolo, Josh Miller. Ashley Gilbert and Sam Backo were early stalwarts but played in 1987, as was David Grant. Ryan Sutton received his eligibility when his calves didn’t cooperate in 2019. The Raiders have never been short of boppers.
Hooker: Simon Woolford
Weirdly, one of my favourite memories that involves Simon Woolford is the day he got sent off at Brookvale and the Raiders still put 50 on the Silvertails. He got three weeks for that hit and I will argue to my grave he didn’t deserve more than a penalty. He was a very good hooker, a top captain, and I always quite enjoyed his coffee shops. Does he still have them? I don’t know.
Others considered: Siliva Havili didn’t make the grand final 17 in 2019. Lincoln Withers played a bit of hooker and could have earned a spot here. Tom Starling could be on the list too.
Bench: Siliva Havili, Shannon Boyd, Luke Davico, David Shillington
I chose Siliva over Lincoln Withers and Tom Starling which is entirely a vibes pick. Shannon Boyd played for Australia while with the Raiders, had a tough start with the Titans, and then Peter V’Landys gave him all the reason he needed to never come back. Luke Davico may be one of the most underrated Raiders of the 90s, and David Shillington was a Origin and Australian player when Canberra had few.
I really like this team. It’s massive, but the presence of Alan Tongue, Joel Thompson gives it a bit of mobility – I could see Tongue sliding to 12 and Siliva playing plenty of middle minutes. I’m not sure what happens to an edge defence that might include Sam Williams, Phil Graham and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs. With Campo flying high and the strikepower out wide it would have no problem scoring points, and if they could, well maybe they could make a grand final after all.
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