It was always going to be a struggle for the Roosters to bring home a win with Boyd Cordner, Blake Ferguson, Mitchell Pearce, Aiden Guerra and Dylan Napa out at Origin camp (and Shaun Kenny-Dowall still absent as well). It was going to be even harder to bring home a win against an intact Raiders outfit playing a home game. No surprise, then, that Canberra came out victorious on Sunday afternoon, despite a late surge from the Roosters on the back of seven straight penalties.
As fate would have it, Luke Keary put down the first points of the game at the ninth minute, but from then on Canberra dominated the board over the second half, with Jordan Rapana bringing home the first Raiders try four minutes later after an incredible run up the right hand side of the field. Grounded by Kane Evans in the single best tackle of Round 12, Rapana nevertheless managed to twist through the contact only to miss the line the first time around before making good on his second movement.
At first, it actually looked as if this remarkable manoeuvre might constitute a double movement, but the bunker ruled it OK, presumably because Rapana didn’t exactly move out of – or even through – the tackle but just pivoted around twice in a row while Evans valiantly pinned him to the same spot. It was a bracing start for the visitors and only intensified ten minutes later, when Rapana brought home second try after a convulsive series of changeovers.
After an escalating series of passes across to the right wing, Elliott Whitehead showed some good forward thinking in managing a swivel pass out to Joey Leilua who almost fumbled it before sending it across to his wingman. It was a brilliant example of what Lepana can do at their best and, yet – full credit to the Roosters – I didn’t think that Rapana managed to shine as consistently from this point on as I would have expected from seeing him fronting up against such a depleted side.
Still, there was no doubt that Canberra were communicating more seamlessly than the visitors, with a quick word between Aiden Sezer and Jarrod Croker leading the halfback to grubber the Steeden through on the fourth tackle half an hour into the game, allowing Croker to leap forward and ground it. The try was all the more cathartic in that the Roosters had just been penalised for obstructing what would almost have certainly have been a third try for Rapana. It didn’t hurt, either, that it came off the back of a brilliant set, starting with a 74 metre kick from Austin that stopped just before the Roosters’ dead ball line, forcing the visitors to scramble an improvised defence over the opening tackle.
From there, things got a bit quieter point-wise, as both teams ground in for a long and volatile night of football. On the Canberra side, Joseph Tapine and Iosia Soliola put in some of their biggest hits of the season, while Michael Gordon really stepped up in the absence of the other key Sydney playmakers and proved particularly outstanding under Blake Austin’s floating bombs.
Over the course of the second half, the Raiders also got sloppier – or more complacent – leading to a cascade of penalties that initially seemed destined to give the Roosters the game. It was a testament to the Raiders, then, that they were able to prevent the visitors scoring until the sixty-second minute, when Joseph Manu finally planted the ball in the top right corner in a Ferguson-like display of dexterity. Ten minutes later, Latrell Mitchell brought home the third and final Roosters try of the evening out the back of a scrum, finishing off a great run from Gordon up the length of the field to set his winger in position.
This final four-pointer was all the more dramatic in that a clash with Leilua earlier in the game had turned this into something of a grudge match, with the Raiders all banding around their centre to target the Roosters winger as much as possible. No surprise, then, that Mitchell’s try felt as if Sydney – somehow – had to win it, not least because of the unbelievable penalty count over the second stanza, which eventually tallied seven before the Raiders finally were granted one themselves.
Still, the writing was arguably on the wall from half time, if only because of how inconsistently the Roosters managed to make these penalties work to their advantage. In the first ten minutes after half time alone, Sydney city got three penalties, only for them to cough up the ball on the first tackle of the two subsequent sets. Sio Siua Taukeiaho was to blame the first time, newcomer Lindsay Collins the next, but in both cases it dampened the team spirit, culminating with an utterly butchered try from the Chooks an hour in.
After an incredible series of passes, including an amazing flick pass from Gordon, Zane Tetevano found himself right on the line, but for some reason held off channelling the ball over to Daniel Tupou and Latrell Mitchell – who were both waiting on his left flank and both unmarked – until it was too late, and the Steeden was destined to go forward. This should have been the turning-point for the Chooks – it would have brought them within four points of Canberra – so it was disappointing to see their communication breaking down at this exact moment.
There was something decisive, then, about Sezer bringing home the final try right on the siren, immediately after Tupou coughed up the ball. In one of the best endings this year, Canberra had slowed things down as much as possible for the previous set, only for the Roosters to get the game back in fast-forward motion for their final twenty seconds of possession. It was an ironic twist, then, that this hastiness actually ended up gifting the ball to the Raiders, with Sezer scoring as calmly and deliberately as if the previous, drawn-out set were still continuing, and the Roosters had never had the advantage of one final changeover in the first place.
With Croker adding the extras two minutes after half time, it was an emphatic victory for the Raiders – even against a depleted team – and a worthy conclusion to such a volatile and visceral game. Sometimes proximity to Origin can produce this kind of added intensity, and no other match this round – with the possible exception of Saturday’s clash between the Sharks and the Bulldogs – felt like such a plosive precursor to Wednesday night. Looking ahead, though, you can be sure that the Roosters will be doing everything in their power to reverse their fortune when they front up against the Broncos the following weekend, while the Raiders will be looking to be make it three in a row when they take on the Sea Eagles in Sydney.