The best moment of the year was James Schiller grubbering around the Melbourne defence to score in the corner.
It was not the most important moment of the year for the Milk, on-field at least. To me that goes to Matt Timoko throwing Cam Munster asunder, proving to the Storm what happened weeks before was no fluke. The Raiders would not be standing back and allowing a more favourited opponent to dictate terms.
Timoko’s try was confirmation. Of the young centre’s continued rise as a football player. Of Joe Tapine – who created the opportunity by tearing a hole in the Melbourne defence – as a top tier forward, unstoppable even when entire defensive structures were geared at keeping him in check. It even had Jack Wighton and Jamal Fogarty combining, a process still in work at that point that will have such a profound impact on Canberra’s 2023. When we count all the parts, it was a just reward for a fan base that happily gobbled the subsequent finals fever that would be put to sleep by Paramatta’s paracetamol the following week.
So Timoko’s try was amazing. It was exhilarating. It brought so much joy to Raiders fans from Aranda to Antarctica (and you bet we get clicks from Antarctica) that I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a line for the maternity ward at Canberra hospital next July longer than when Guzman Y Gomez offered free burritos when it opened (now, kids, that’s what we call a niche and obscure callback).
We’ve done this before. So how about basking in the good times from years past?
James Schiller’s try – flashy as it was – wasn’t even the single most impressive try of the season. After a hellish 2021, in which a combination of Peter V’Landys and internal chaos turned Canberra’s attack into a mixture of cement mix and gruel, 2022 brought back a bit of pizzazz. From round one – with Hudson Young and Matt Timoko’s brilliant combination and misdirection – the Raiders found a way to create some amazing tries.
My personal favourite (above) was Seb Kris’s try that started with Corey Horsburgh running around the two defenders meant to be tackling him, putting Huddo into a position where he could throw a pass so perfectly put together it could have been a bar from the climatic scene of 8 Mile. Everyone had that stankface. You might have preferred the procession of beautiful rugby league moments against the Sea-Eagles and the Tigers. Or maybe Hudson Young beating the Knights by himself when no one else wanted to. Heck, maybe you don’t like tries. Maybe you prefer Semi Valemei hitting AJ Brimson so hard AJ Brimson Jr will have nightmares about that moment.
Timoko’s try, and many of these other moments, stood on the shoulders of giants. Schiller’s try wasn’t a coronation like Timoko’s. But it was proof. Proof that the Milk could beat good teams. Proof that the shitshow of 2021 and early 2022 wasn’t the real Raiders. As we put it at the time:
It took a little bit of magic, but Canberra’s victory was no fluke. This was the best of them. Let’s hope we see it again.
For the best part of a season and a half the Raiders had offered little respite from regular life. When Canberra came up against the Storm in round 18 they’d lost three of their last five, and only avoided making that worse because Young’s ingenuity against Newcastle. This was an infuriating stutter to a season that had appeared to be turning around when the Milk beat the Dogs, Bunnies, and Sharks in consecutive weeks, and the Roosters to make four wins over an impressive five week run. We suspected there might be a good footy team hiding somewhere among the frustrating losses (like the chaos in the rain and wind in the ‘Gong a week earlier). Now their season was on the line to avoid becoming nothing but a ‘mathematical’ chance.
The Storm game instead was was the first sliver of dawn on what would become the welcome September sun after a cold winter. Two years of no or limited fans at the footy, a year from hell in 2021, and a frustrating 2022 were giving way to a better world. Canberra’s middle, which had dragged the rest of the team along for the best part of the year like a dad dragging a reluctant toddler through a supermarket (personal experience seeps in again) dominated a pack often considered one of the best in the league (though, admittedly without some players and below its best). Their right-side attack, which had been in some dark crevice between hell and a bad smell for the best part of the year, sprung to life, creating two of the Milk’s three tries. The Raiders were busy proving against a top four side that they belonged.
And yet despite all that the Raiders were trailing by two points at the pointy end of the game. A moral ‘victory’ like this would have been such a Canberra way to have their season ended prematurely. Taking it up to a good team but ultimately falling short. Gross. But instead of capitulation we got heaven.
It’s hard to decide what was most impressive about this. Was it the perfectly weighted kick on the run? Was it spotting that there was no fullback to cover across? What is the footwork down the sideline to get back into the field before placing the ball in the corner like the final piece of sky in a 1000-part puzzle? Was it doing this while a relatively newbie in the side, courageous enough to be willing to risk looking like a fool in order to seal a victory, and in doing so breathe so much oxygen into the Raiders season that we spent the next week a little giddy (would too much oxygen make you giddy? Work with me).
Personally, this moment will always stand out for me. It was my first day back at the footy since the 2019 grand final. The first time I’d been back with the people, yelling out random things at football players like the absolute lunatic I (sometimes) am. Being able to scream ‘RUGBY LEAGUE FOOTBALL!!!” across a stadium full of saddened and quietened Storm fans after Schiller stunned them was a gift. But like the Milk’s victory, it felt apt.
It provided a promise, the dash of hope that had felt absent too often in the early goings of the season or that before. A sprinkling of magic dust that could put the season right. The Raiders only lost to the eventual grand-finalists over the rest of the season, going 8-1 before the Eels ended the magic. And it all started with that one moment provided by James Schiller.
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