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23 hours in Sydney

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8th October, 2019
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I watched the Canberra versus Canterbury 1994 NSWRL grand final on a grainy old 13-inch television at my grandma’s holiday house in Barwon Heads, on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula.

Well, the first 20 minutes, anyway.

I got to see David Furner and Ken Nagas score tries, then got dragged out with the family. I was a bit annoyed but it didn’t really matter because in the period between 1987 and 1994, the Raiders played in five grand finals. The next one was a fait accompli.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and I’m on a plane to Sydney with a ticket to the 2019 decider. I’m going along with fellow Raiders tragic and legendary opinionated statsman Tim Gore, and we’re both as nervous as each other.

We try to have a few nerve-settling beers before the game but it doesn’t work. We chat to a few Roosters fans, who are to a person just lovely. I guess that’s what you’re like when your team wins premierships.

Apart from the Roosters supporters end and a few thousand suits filling the non-broadcast side of the ground, the Olympic Stadium is a sea of green. Thousands of free flags are given away to both sets of fans and they get a huge workout throughout the night.

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The pre-match stuff is good fun. For some reason NBA legend Paul Pierce is here, talking about whatever it is he does now. When he’s asked who he’s backing he reads the room and says Canberra, to a wave of appreciative noise.

OneRepublic smack out about 15 minutes of their harmless throwaway pop megahits that don’t really hurt anyone.

Ryan James chunks the welcome to country and it feels like an eternity before they throw to the anthem to bail him out. Poor bastard.

The Viking Clap is immense, the biggest ever. Down the other end of the ground Roosters fans chant ‘Easts’ in an attempt to sabotage this brand new tradition, but the length of time the sound takes to travel to their end means their chant syncs up perfectly with the ‘oooooh’.

I film the Viking Clap on my phone and try to upload it to the social media, as you do, but everyone else in the joint has the same idea and I can’t get any reception.

Viking Clap

Raiders fans during the Viking Clap. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The stadium is humming. Canberra kicks off.

Barely three minutes into the game, Sia Soliola gets his head to a Luke Keary kick in a charge-down attempt. Elliot Whitehead is racing down the middle towards the ball, James Tedesco flying across from the right side to try and get to him.

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For some reason, Travis Touma, the Roosters’ orange-shirt trainer, is standing 15 metres behind the defensive line. Touma makes zero effort to get out of the way and the ball cannons into his shoulder. A great grand final moment is lost and due to an archaic entry in the rugby league rulebook, the Tricolours get the ball back.

Touma jogs off the field, laughing.

I look over at Tim. This is the exact thing he’s written and spoken about for years on The Roar and other places. He told us this would happen. And it’s happened in the biggest game of the year, in front of millions of people.

Tim sits there. And sits there. And sits there. He is seething. Absolutely livid. It’s like he’s stuck between screaming “I bloody told you” and burning the stadium to the ground. He can’t do either. He’s immobilised with rage.

Two sets later, young Roosters hooker Sam Verrills makes a great attacking read and scores the first try of the game. The Roosters end goes crazy.

From that point, the Bondi boys are bashing Canberra. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is strolling through the Raiders’ middle, leading his side’s easy metres every set. They hit towering bombs to Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, who takes everything coming his way and returns it with interest. Nick Cotric plays at a ball he didn’t need to and turns over possession ten metres out from the attacking tryline.

Trent Robinson’s machine has clicked into gear and that horrible feeling starts to bubble to the surface, the one telling you that everything horrible you feared would happen is going to happen.

Then Jack Wighton scores. He goes straight through the spot Mitch Aubusson would have been standing if he hadn’t hurt himself tackling Whitehead earlier. The green end erupts.

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Jack Wighton

Jack Wighton celebrates scoring. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

It’s 8-6 at halftime and the unanimous thinking is “We’ll take that.”

Not long after halftime, Cooper Cronk is binned for tackling Josh Papalii a nanosecond too early. This is the chance, this is the moment.

Normally with 13 on 12, Canberra spin the ball wide and stretch the defence, but for some reason they spend nine of the ten minutes playing inside balls and running straight up the middle.

The club’s newfound defensive starch has come at the expense of their freewheeling attack, with structure and discipline taking over playing free jazz and seeing where it leads.

It’s not a massive problem, Ricky Stuart knew the defensive attitude needed attention, and look where the team went with it. But what I’d give right now for a reckless, crazy-brave kamikaze tilt at the tryline.

With 30 seconds left on the sin bin timer, the ball finally goes wide to Joey Leilua, who has Latrell Mitchell in front of him and an unmarked Jordan Rapana outside him. If he passes the ball, it’s a try.

He doesn’t pass the ball.

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Leilua is tackled, attempts a feeble flick pass along the ground, rolling forward to Rapana who grounds the ball and gets up screaming all manner of constructive criticism at his centre. The ‘Leipana’ combination that has brought so much joy and excitement has misfired just once, and it might not get another chance.

Down the green end, we don’t see any of that. All we see is Rapana ground the ball. We erupt, briefly. Then referee Ben Cummins and the video replay tell us what we need to know.

Now Canberra are doing the battering, playing fantastic rugby league. The Sydneysiders are pulling out one of the all-time greatest grand final defensive efforts, repelling over and over and over.

Siosiua Taukeiaho makes a bust up the middle and CNK takes him down front on, face on, to the ground. It’s a warning shot from the defending champs.

With nine minutes left, Canberra put up a bomb which rebounds off an aerial mess of bodies. Cummins waves his hand above his head, six again. The green end starts to roar. I quickly look to the right side to see what options are on offer as the ball moves to Wighton, who is tackled and told to turn over the ball.

The stadium is roaring, booing, screaming abuse, cheering with relief. No one quite understands what’s happened, but we’re certain we saw Cummins wave his arm for six more tackles.

Jack Wighton

AAP Image/Lukas Coch

I check my phone. Still no reception. No awesome Viking Clap footage for the world just yet.

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Maybe they’re distracted, maybe they’re tired, but the Raiders switch off for two seconds. Keary scoots from dummy half, passes to Mitchell who plays a brilliant flick to Daniel Tupou, who for mine has a claim to being the best on field.

This play is all running towards our end. We can see there’s no fullback. We can see there’s no last line of defence. We can see Tedesco screaming down the field, taking the pass from Tupou and scoring the heartbreaker.

There’s maybe six minutes to strike back, but you know it’s the end. The Roosters absorbed Canberra’s very, very best for 50 minutes. They weren’t getting scored on again. It’s miracle time.

The Raiders get into the attacking 20 but run out of time. Roosters fans and players embrace, scream, yell, weep, cheer, running the gamut of all the happy emotions.

The green end is shellshocked, devastated. Some people are asking each other if they’d really seen Cummins wave six again and why the ball got taken away. Tim and I are standing around not knowing what to do, deflated but understanding we’ve just witnessed a phenomenal game of rugby league.

Joseph Leilua

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Maybe it’s because we’re in the Raiders end, but the whole ground feels subdued. Life at the other end seems pretty rowdy but there’s an eerie calm over the stadium. The presentation dais is rolled out at the blue, red and white end.

Jack Wighton is named Clive Churchill medallist, Sia Soliola awarded the Ken Stephens medal for his off-field community work. Soliola is a great man, Wighton now a genuine candidate for those ‘redemption’ stories I hate talking about so much.

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The Raiders lead in all the match statistics but one – the score. They have all the medals on offer, but they don’t have the only trophy that matters.

My phone starts to squeak. Finally, some reception. My Viking Clap video goes live five minutes after the game finishes. Then in floods message after message after message asking if I’m okay, saying Canberra was robbed, that Cummins changed his decision and TV commentators were wailing and weeping at the injustice.

Family members and friends who usually couldn’t care less about the NRL are texting condolences and using language I certainly do not expect from them.

I had no idea. Was so focused on what was happening on the field. Completely oblivious to the tsunami of rage going on everywhere except inside the ground.

My mind goes back to when I was at the 2009 AFL grand final and Geelong’s Tom Hawkins kicked a goal that clearly hit the post but wasn’t called. When the final siren sounded, the Cats led St Kilda by six points – one goal.

I celebrated that 2009 result like nobody’s business, and I see opposition fans doing the same tonight. There’s no point getting angry, that’s just the way things are.

Some Raiders supporters are getting angry now that it’s apparent what happened, but they’re a minority.

The team comes down to salute the fans, the last Viking Clap is done, the Roosters set off on their lap of honour, and Tim and I wander off into the night, sugaring over the disappointment with an ice cream and mini doughnuts.

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We’re eating our feelings good and proper. Not long ago I would have downed a bottle of Jack Daniels, but it just doesn’t fit the night.

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We’re not angry, we’re not sad. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. We actually have a cup of tea, believe it or not. Then Tim takes out his phone and in about 90 minutes produces a piece about the trainer on the field, an article four years in the making.

The overwhelming emotion is pride. Not many expected Canberra to be grand finalists. Being honest, Raiders fans didn’t expect to still be in the game until the final play against one of the great NRL teams. 2019 has been a brilliant season for the men in green. Now the challenge is to do it again.

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On the flight back to Melbourne I replay the past 23 hours in my head. It was a fantastic event. More real fans in the stands than the AFL allows at their grand final. Fewer suits getting freebies, more genuine emotion and investment in the game.

A phenomenal game. Good camaraderie between fans. Glorious mini-doughnuts.

Rugby league’s going okay I reckon.