Heading into the opening game of Round 10, the Raiders were rank outsiders. They had absolutely no chance of overthrowing the rampant Roosters.
Or so it seemed.
They barely had a forward pack with Corey Horsburgh, John Bateman, Emre Guler, Iosia Soliola and inspirational hooker Josh Hodgson all missing through injury. And that’s not to mention the loss of Bailey Simonsson, which meant Michael Oldfield played on the wing.
On paper they were mismatched all across the park. Then add the dreaded five-day turnaround plus a trip to the Sydney Cricket Ground, which the Roosters have been able to make their own over the last 18 months.
You add that to the fact their form hasn’t been that good anyway, even considering the toughness of their draw, and they shouldn’t have got close.
It should have been a walk in the park for the Roosters in much the same way most of their games since the return from lockdown had been, seeing the Tricolours score 246 points and let in only 83 for six wins and a loss.
But it wasn’t, because the men in green, Ricky Stuart’s Raiders, love proving the doubters wrong. It’s almost been built into their culture over the past 12 months to the point where when all the chips are down, when they are desperate for a win and no-one expects it, they will put one out of the fire.
If you rewind the best part of 18 months, and with preparations for 2019 ongoing, no-one rated them a chance of doing anything more than challenging for a spot in the top eight. In fact the general consensus seemed to be that the men from the nation’s capital, with their enormous contingent of Englishmen, would probably struggle to make the finals and that coach Stuart might have been under pressure by season’s end.
Of course history will tell the story of what actually happened. As fans and pundits kept waiting for the Raiders to fall apart, they never did; they kept on winning and made it all the way to the grand final.
It’s that attitude of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ that the Raiders have carried with them into the 2020 season, and it’s that attitude they must continue to play with if they are to make a challenge for higher honours.
Their injury toll is enormous, but to beat the defending, in-form premiers in the grand final rematch with all the factors against them suggests that just maybe those writing the season off after the loss of Josh Hodgson last week might have been doing so far too quickly.
Sure, fans have written them off because of their form, but they haven’t been that bad. A one-point loss to the Eels and a six-point loss to the Storm are hardly disgraceful over the last month, while their first half against the Dragons in between was superb.
And last night’s effort over the Roosters, who just last week ripped the Cowboys in half despite their own injuries and disruptions, was hardly perfect, but it was gutsy. It was gritty. It was exactly the sort of game Canberra needed to play.
To go behind multiple times yet stay in the fight, for George Williams to be able to take on the line and score a pivotal try, for Siliva Havili and Tom Starling to both have enormous games in the absence of Hodgson and for their pack to stand up – there are so many positives for Canberra.
Chief among them is the way Williams took over the team, both kicking and running. He took ownership of the game situation without Hodgson, which allowed Wighton to continue playing his natural game and wreak havoc on the Roosters defensive right edge.
Of course the performance of Williams in the halves wouldn’t have been possible without the forward pack, and it was Queensland State of Origin veteran Josh Papalii who stood up to lead that charge.
He is an inspirational figure in the lime green, and if the Raiders are to make any sort of charge this season, he will be at the forefront of everything they do.
Last night he came away with 212 metres, a try – the matchwinning try – and no missed tackles. That was despite having to pass a head impact assessment in the early going of the game.
It was his best effort of the year, and while he has been good most other weeks, he took his game to another level last night, right when his team needed it most. It allowed the rest of the forwards – who all had reasonable games – to play without the same pressure as their leader and ensured the Raiders, even when the going got tough, always had decent go forward and a strong defensive presence in the middle third of the park.
Then there was Joe Tapine, Dunamis Lui, Elliott Whitehead and even Ryan Sutton to back him up. They had to stand up to tackle the best team in the game, and they did just that, even if it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
They performed like the team who made the grand final last night even without a chunk of that team on the park.
Being able to hang tough through periods when your side is on the back foot is the hallmark of any good footy team, and the Raiders did plenty of that last night.
Ricky Stuart will be immensely proud of his side now they are through the toughest part of the draw with their season still intact – and more than intact, as they sit with a record of six and four.
Their run home only has three more games against teams in the current top eight, being South Sydney next week, Penrith and the Roosters again, so they should be able to build momentum.
Whether they can go any further in the finals is up in the air, but they looked a team who were determined to prove a point at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
And when the talent is there to back it up as well as an experienced coach who knows what it takes to play high-level footy when the whips are cracking, anything is possible.
They may not be a premiership contender, and they can’t be talked about that way yet, but Canberra’s effort to beat the Roosters should make opposition contenders sit up and take notice.