Criticism of referees used to be about the inaccuracy of their decisions, but during the NRL grand final the referees came under spotlight because they arrived at the correct decision.
The Canberra Raiders may well be the success story of the 2019 NRL season no matter the result when they take on the Sydney Roosters in a grand final with more storylines than you can poke a stick at.
While there is no doubting the Raiders are the club who have out-performed and beaten expectations in 2019, it goes without saying that Ricky Stuart’s green machine would like to cap off an incredible season with the fairytale premiership.
It’s been 25 years since the Raiders last played (and won) a grand final.
On that occasion, it was current coach Stuart, joined by Laurie Daley in the halves, who guided the Raiders to their last title, beating the Canterbury Bulldogs.
It was hardly a grand final for the ages as the Raiders ran away with a 36-12 thumping, but carrying some of the cities favourite sons, including Mal Meninga and David Furner, it’s all fans of the Raiders have had to hang onto.
Because now, there is a new crop of Raiders who have a chance to bring glory, and the Provan-Summons trophy, back to the nation’s capital.
Led by their little band of English imports and an experiment in the halves which has led to untold success, players like Josh Hodgson, John Bateman Jack Wighton and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad have banded together to get this gritty green machine to the big dance.
But standing in their way is the other storyline, and the other fairytale.
It’s not a fairytale for the neutrals, but to Roosters fans, this could be something very special as one of the all-time greats, Cooper Cronk plays his final game.
Not only that, but the Roosters, those dastardly tri-colours who everyone outside of their own fans seemingly can’t stand, are attempting to become the first team in just over 25 years to win back-to-back premierships.
While the Raiders won the competition in 1994, it was a Broncos whitewash before that, and they have held the history book ever since as the last two to win two straight fully national, unified competitions.
And yes, Broncos fans will scream they won ‘it’ in 1997 and 1998, but the last real back to back was 1992 and 1993, against a club who shall remain nameless in this piece.
Regardless, so be in the grand final again is a mighty fine achievement, but the Roosters only need to look as far as the Storm to know how difficult winning again is.
That’s because the Storm made the last three grand finals, with all their talent, all their class, and lost two of them, then fell to the Roosters in the preliminary final.
The way the finals have worked out may actually send the Roosters into the game as even bigger favourites than they already would have been.
It’s been thought for months that we were heading towards – no, hurtling towards – another Roosters and Storm grand final, but then, the easiness of that suggestion was blown to smithereens when the Raiders upset all of that and beat the Storm in Melbourne for the second time in the same year.
That put Melbourne’s men in purple on a collision course with the tri-colours in preliminary final week, and it was the Roosters who made a mess of Melbourne.
Their defence was oh, so good, their attack on another level, and they came away with a win that, while physical, leaves them in a very good shape for the grand final.
But those Raiders aren’t just going to roll over. Beating the Storm twice in a season in Melbourne just simply isn’t done, and Canberra’s preliminary final win over the Rabbitohs last weekend was just as impressive.
Their attack has been a little clunky, but they have the talent if they can find a way through the great wall of Bondi, while their defence is what the campaign has been made off.
While the Roosters must enter the big dance as the big favourites, this is hardly a clear cut decider, and there is very little between the two sides historically to go off.
Sure, the Roosters beat the Raiders twice during the regular season, but both of those games were absolute bell-ringers and with a bit of luck, the results could have been very different.
With the weather forecast shaping up nicely, we should get a fairly free-flowing game of footy as well, and if the Raiders can make it physical, then who knows how much of an advantage their extra 24 hours of rest might be able to give them.
The big (and really only) question when it comes to team news for the men in red, white and blue, is around that of veteran hooker Jake Friend.
He has been injured for quite some time, but is in the reserves again. Should he play, it’s likely to be from the bench, forcing Nat Butcher out of the grand final, which would be a huge call from Trent Robinson.
In other news, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is back from his suspension for tripping, forcing the big Siosiua Taukeiaho, who would love to regain his early-season form, back to the bench. Lindsay Collins was the one to miss out on making the 17.
1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. Joseph Manu 5. Brett Morris 6. Luke Keary 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Sam Verrills 10. Isaac Liu 11. Boyd Cordner 12. Mitchell Aubusson 13. Victor Radley
Interchange: 14. Angus Crichton 15. Zane Tetevano 16. Nat Butcher 17. Siosiua Taukeiaho 20. Jake Friend 21. Ryan Hall
The Raiders have made no changes from their side which beat the Rabbitohs last Friday night, however, there are questions over Joseph Leilua and Jack Wighton which won’t be answered until an hour from kick-off.
Leilua injured his calf last week, while Wighton is nursing a shoulder complaint, but both are expected to play.
1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2. Nick Cotric 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Jack Wighton 7. Aidan Sezer 8. Josh Papalii 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Iosia Soliola 11. John Bateman 12. Elliott Whitehead 13. Joseph Tapine
Interchange: 14. Bailey Simonsson 15. Emre Guler 16. Corey Horsburgh 17. Dunamis Lui 19. Ryan Sutton 20. Siliva Havili
How do the Raiders breach the defence?
When you think about the Roosters, you more or less know what you’re going to get. Ruthless defence and clinical attack for the most part with very few bumps on the road to victories.
That’s why this match is shaping up as a battle of the Raiders attack trying to find a way through.
Last weekend, in a physical preliminary final, the tri-colours were absolutely relentless in defence. They did a superb job in suppressing the Melbourne attack time and time again.
They made them look like they had no idea at times, which is not often said about the side led by Cameron Smith and Cameron Munster, who are two of the best players in the game.
And that’s where the fear comes from that this could be a bit ugly.
You see, since the Raiders last played the Roosters, they have gone up a number of gears, particuarly at that defensive end of the park, and so, it’s going to take a complete and perfect team effort to put the tri-colours under the pump and go with them.
This is especially true of the first half an hour, where the Roosters have ended a number of games in the last couple of months before the opposition side knew what hit them.
There is no doubt Trent Robinson’s side will attempt to stick to the same formula of blowing their opposition off the park early, and so Canberra need to be with it from the first minutes.
I could sit here and single out names. John Bateman, Josh Hodgson, Jack Wighton, Aidan Sezer, Josh Papalii. It’s no good though. If every single member of that starting 13 isn’t at their best or isn’t able to rise to the occasion. It’s going to be over before it begins.
Josh Papalii must lead the way for the green machine
While I have just stated it’s hard to single out one player, Josh Papalii is the man the green machine will turn to in an attempt to pave the way forward.
Not only is he the Raiders inspiration up front, he also has big-game experience in Australia. He has played State of Origins and international matches, so should have a good idea of the intensity that is to be expected in the early minutes.
Many of his teammates won’t, so the knowledge and momentum of Papalii will be crucial early doors for the Raiders.
While he has the experience, Papalii also has the form.
The representative prop, who for so long has been a little on the underrated side throughout the media, is finally getting the credits he deserves, because in the last two months, he has been the form prop of this competition.
Now, he just needs to stand up and prove it one more time.
Papalii has averaged 146 metres per game this season, but his two finals performances have seen him go for 163 and 179 metres, with 53 and 58 post-contact metres respectively. They are phenomenal figures playing big minutes, but he needs to be the Raiders answer to Waerea-Hargreaves, Liu and Radley in the middle third, which is a task easier said than done.
What can Cooper Cronk do this year?
The influence of Cooper Cronk on last year’s grand final has been written about widely, so there is no point going over it again, except to say he was an incredible on-field coach with one arm.
This year, he comes into the grand final fit, healthy, and in his final game before heading off into retirement.
The amazing factor about Cronk is that he won’t be the most watched man on the field for the Roosters. You only need to look at the talent all around him – Luke Keary, James Tedesco, Sam Verrills, Latrell Mitchell, just to name a few – to know that Cronk isn’t the height of the Raiders defensive issues in this decider.
But what he will provide is consistency. A way out if the Roosters do find themselves in trouble, a lot of crisp passes which will hit the target exactly as expected, and a fearlessness to take the ball into the line and not shy away from contact.
Cronk is the ultimate professional in his position, and he also makes the job easier for those around him, Tedesco and Keary in particular, which is a sentence no Raiders player or fan will want to admit is true.
Because Tedesco and Keary don’t need their jobs made easier. They are already too talented.
Cronk’s role is critical to what the Roosters dish up in the grand final, and in any game they play, but his control under pressure will come into its own.
If the Raiders can find a way to shut him down, it puts a significant dent in the Roosters, but that… Well, that is one very difficult job.
I tend to think this will be a much better game than some of the wider masses are saying.
The Raiders haven’t been far away from the Roosters in the two games played between the sides during the regular season, and will have learnt from those matches.
A side in the grand final who have beaten the Storm twice in a season aren’t just going to get blown off the park.
However, they are the outsiders for a reason. The only reason I can really find not to back the tri-colours is that no team has gone back-to-back in a unified competition for 26 years.
That’s a lot of history to overcome, but Cooper Cronk will do that with his side and go out a winner.
Roosters by 8.
Date: Sunday, October 6
Kick-off: 7:30pm (AEDT)
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Homebush
TV: Live, Channel 9
Online: Live, 9Now
Betting: Roosters $1.30, Raiders $3.10
Overall record: Played 62, Roosters 34, Raiders 28
Last meeting: Round 21, Raiders 18 defeated by Roosters 22 at GIO Stadium, Canberra
Last five: Raiders 3, Roosters 2
Record at venue: Never played
Record in finals: Played 4, Roosters 3, Raiders 1
Referees: Ben Cummins, Gerard Sutton
Don’t forget to join us here on The Roar from 7:15pm (AEST) on Saturday evening for our live coverage and highlights of the 2019 NRL decider.