“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!”
(Henry V, Act III, Scene I)
Given the large contingent of Englishmen who are at the forefront of the Canberra Raiders’ charge into the top four, it is fitting to compare their against-the-odds win over the Melbourne Storm with the deeds performed by Henry the fifth and his army at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Massively behind on the scoreboard, down on troops, against a perennial contender, and at a hostile away venue that was packed with one-eyed purple people, their plight was not dissimilar to that of King Harry’s position who was trying to get his depleted, beleaguered and diseased army back to the safety of Calais.
They had to fight. They had to win. Or all was lost.
Having just been pipped by the Roosters the previous week at home – and with the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles breathing down their necks – the Raiders simply had to beat the Storm or risk a rapid fall down the NRL ladder and virtually no chance of glory in 2019.
However, with every excuse to lie down – just like the English forces at Agincourt – the Raiders instead rallied.
You could almost hear King Henry the Fifth’s words – as imagined by William Shakespeare – coming through the actions of the Raider co-captains Jarrod Croker and Josh Hodgson as they led their men back into the game.
“If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour…
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse
We would not die in that man’s company”
The Raiders players refused to yield to the odds. Instead they relentlessly threw themselves at the Storm side in attack and defence.
In the end they overwhelmed the Storm. It certainly wasn’t down to luck either.
It was down to character.
The disastrous loss to the Penrith Panthers at Carrington Park in Bathurst in Round 14 of 2017 where the Raiders gave up an eight-point lead in the final two minutes of the game destroyed their morale and their season.
It not only made the team doubt their own ability to win games, it told all of their opponents from that point on that they could beat the Raiders even if they were behind by a large margin.
The Green Machine seemingly regularly blew leads, faded out and capitulated after that.
But not this season. And not on Saturday night.
On Saturday night not only were the ghosts of Bathurst 2017 laid to rest, but a formidable team bond was formed. A bond between the players that means that they truly believe in each other and the ability of their team to beat anyone. To meet any challenge. To give no quarter and to ask for none.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother”
The Raiders come-from-way-behind victory announced that they have arrived as a contender.
And it wasn’t just that they won, it was the manner of the win.
When Josh Papalii cut through the Storm defence to touch down under the posts, not only did the Raiders firm for a spot in the top four, they cemented their belief that they could beat anyone, anywhere.
The Melbourne Storm had never before surrendered an 18-point lead at home.
The Raiders of 2018 would have had no chance of coming back. In all likelihood it would have been another flogging like the 44-10 Craig Bellamy’s boys dished out to them in Round 20 of last year.
Not this time though. Not this team. Even though the Raiders spent 25 per cent of the game with only 12 men on the paddock.
It is noteworthy that when the Raiders had 13 men on the field the score was 22-6 in their favour.
Up until last weekend Ricky Stuart’s charges were still being written off by many as frauds who had yet to beat another side in the top five – I’m looking at you Phil Gould.
And I guess that was true until Saturday night.
However, any close examination of the matches the Raiders had lost against the Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles so far this year should have showed any astute commentator just how close the Raiders were to cracking the top level.
The 12-point loss to the Melbourne Storm in Round 2 is the Raiders biggest loss for the season. The preparation for that game was condensed into just under five days (118 hours) after they had played up on the Gold Coast in the driving rain the previous Sunday night.
Conversely, the Storm had played at home on a dry track on the opening Thursday of the season and swanned into the nation’s capital eight days later with 188 hours between their games. That the Raiders only lost by 12 points when they had 70 hours (37 per cent) less preparation time was actually pretty good.
Their other six losses have been by a converted try or less.
The Raiders have little excuse for their loss to the Sea Eagles in Round 7. After leading by 12-0 after 12 minutes, they should not have been headed. However, they still only lost by four points.
Down 30-6 after 43 minutes against the Roosters in round nine, the Raiders fought back to just lose by six, with a forward final pass by Nic Cotric the only thing stopping golden point extra time.
A brilliant play at the ball by Rabbitoh Corey Allan is all that stopped Raiders co-captain Jarrod Croker from scoring a winning try over the Rabbitohs in Round 10.
And of course it was a James Tedesco masterclass in Round 21 that got the Roosters home by four points over the Raiders.
Not one of these was a dishonourable flogging to demonstrate the Raiders were well off the pace, or that the Green Machine had simply been beating up on out of form teams as Gould asserted.
In 2018 the Raiders had 40+ scores put on them twice, 30+ scores three times and 20+ scores ten times.
In 2019, the Roosters 30 points are the most the Raiders have conceded in a game, there have only been seven times their opponents have made 20 or more, and the Raiders have held three sides scoreless.
Last season the Raiders were the second highest point scoring side at the end of the home and away period with 509. However, they were also the fifth worst for conceding points with 496, with an average game score of 24.2 – 23.6. It saw them lose eight games by six points or less and miss the finals by ten points and finish in 10th spot.
This season they are presently the fourth best scoring side with 475 points. However, they also boast the second best defence with only 318 points conceded. In 2019 their average game score is 22.6 – 15.1. That is a net 6.9 point per game improvement.
The team has been trying to fly under the radar to this point but it is now safe to say that the secret is out.
While there has been a lot of press about just what lovely blokes the likes of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Jarrod Croker are, it isn’t the case on the field.
They, and all their teammates, are determined to win. Their success has been based on bloody minded, never say die defence.
They are in the three best sides this year for run metres, line breaks and tries conceded.
This resolute defence was demonstrated in the fifth minute of the match against the Storm when 94kg Nicoll-Klokstad held up a rampaging 114kg Jesse Bromwich by himself to prevent a try.
The likes of Elliot Whitehead, John Bateman, Josh Papalii, Josh Hodgson and Jack Wighton are defending like men possessed too. And they are very good at it.
Last year most sides knew they could aim at easy targets like Blake Austin in the line to get their points. Now they are scratching to find weak spots.
But the Raiders attack is also good, with many sources of danger.
What many missed when Josh Papalii went over for the match winning try is why it was seemingly so easy. It wasn’t just because – along with Martin Tapau, Jesse Bromwich and David Klemmer (and Payne Haas is coming up too) – Papalii is one of the form props of the NRL.
It was because the Storm defence had so many threats to worry about that they lost focus on defending Papalii properly. Dale Finucane was so busy keeping watch over John Bateman that he left his diminutive fullback, Jahrome Hughes, alone to try and tackle the star prop.
This multi-faceted team hasn’t occurred by magic either.
In 2014 when the Raiders lost Anthony Milford and failed to attract the likes of James Tedesco, Michael Ennis and Kevin Proctor things looked desperate for the side. Just five seasons later Ricky Stuart – a premiership winner frequently maligned as a poor coach – has created a well credentialed side that are clearly contenders.
It wasn’t gifted to him.
He wasn’t lucky.
He made this side himself and forged it in the harshest of adversity. While I doubt he’ll get it, he deserves full credit for what a superb job he has done.
His side is led by the undoubted superstar in Josh Hodgson. The Yorkshireman is more than ably supported by star players that include Josh Papalii, John Bateman, Jordan Rapana, Jack Wighton, Elliot Whitehead, Nic Cotric, Joey Leilua and Jarrod Croker.
Players like Sia Soliola, Aidan Sezer, Dunams Lui and Joe Tapine don’t take a backward step either. Then there are the boom rookies in Nicoll-Klokstad, Ryan Sutton, Corey Horsburgh and Bailey Simonsson.
Further, in the wings if injury strikes are Michael Oldfield, Hudson Young, Saliva Havili, Luke Bateman, Sam Williams, Emre Guler and Sebastian Kris.
It’s hard to go past the Englishmen being the catalyst for the Raiders new found hard edge. Hodgson and Whitehead have already proved themselves as very hard men in previous seasons and continue to do so. Lancastrian Ryan Sutton has complemented them this year.
But it is John Bateman who has truly charged headlong ‘unto the breach’ this season, just like his forebears did against the French way back in 1415.
He has attacked the NRL like a berserker. He has come to show us all just how tough men from Bradford are. There is a look in his eye that says that he might not be ‘quite right.’
It’s the look that had Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen backing down in Round 14. It’s a look that says that he doesn’t care at all about your reputation and he’s coming to get you.
He is leading the Raiders charge into only their second finals series in seven seasons and his team mates are right there with him.
That was very clear last Saturday night when they came back from the dead to best the competition leaders in their own backyard.
It was a huge victory for the Raiders. Not just in the context of the season, but in the history of the club.
The Raiders are now the real deal. Underestimate them at your peril.
“And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”