The Raiders made up for four straight losses with an epic win over the Dragons after a 40/20 kick from Aidan Sezer and a try from Elliot Whitehead sealed the deal in golden point at GIO Stadium on Friday night. It was a particularly dispiriting conclusion for the Red V, who had lost Russell Packer early on with a hip injury and then Josh Dugan for an HIA assessment, following a brutal shoulder charge from Josh Papalii in the second stanza. That said, Canberra were pretty strong from the outset, and deserved the victory, despite the achievement of the Dragons in taking things to the eighty-third minute.
Nick Cotric put down the first try for the Green Machine six minutes in, and yet this would be the last points scored for the Raiders until the sixty-first minute, with the Dragons responding with a spirited comeback that saw Gareth Widdop and Jason Nightingale scoring in quick succession over the next ten minutes. Widdop’s points, in particular, were a stunning riposte to Cotric, coming off a terrific dummy and run from Nene Macdonald between Junior Paulo and Iosia Soliola that set up Widdop to ground the Steeden right beneath the posts, setting himself up nicely for his subsequent conversion.
The try was all the more frustrating for the Raiders in that it came off the back of a dead ball kick from Blake Austin, although as it turned out Widdop didn’t even need the full seven tackles to get the Steeden to ground. Nine minutes later, Widdop went from tryscorer to try assister, collecting a nice pass from Jack De Belin and getting the Steeden across to Jason Nightingale just as he was being taken out of the field of play, touching the ball so briefly that it seemed to bounce off his fingers rather than actually pass through them.
As half time approached, the Raiders responded with a series of punishing repeat sets. At first, it looked as if they might have scored after Jarrod Croker managed to dash to the very end of the in-goal area on the back of a long, skittering grubber from Austin, only for Bunker footage to show that he’d lost control of the ball just before it hit the ground. If Valentine Holmes’ first try against the Blues a couple of days before had pushed the threshold between losing and grounding the ball as far as it would go, then Croker was just beyond this threshold, as all the Canberra momentum was collapsed into a penalty, rather than the goal-line dropout they’d been hoping for.
As fate would have it, however, they regained possession immediately after, and clocked up their seventh penalty of the night from St. George-Illawarra to boot, but even then Canberra couldn’t manage to put down a try, despite the fact that they had far exceeded the visitors in possession and field position by this point in the game. In first ten minutes of the second half, the Raiders received two penalties on two subsequent sets – the first after Tim Lafai was dragged into touch up the short side for the second time this season; the second after Kurt Mann played the ball sideways following a nasty head clash with Whitehead one tackle into a seven tackle set.
In each case, however, the Raiders were unable to make good, allowing Dugan to catch the high ball on the full in the in-goal area the first time around and make it back into the field of play on the first set; and coughing up the ball for a rapid changeover on the second. That just made it all the more heartbreaking for St. George-Illawarra supporters, however, when Dugan was taken off following a shoulder charge from Papalii right on the hour mark. The silver lining was that he managed to return possession to the Dragons, with the Raiders conceding their fifth goal line dropout on the following set after Jordan Rapana, who had been having a fairly quiet night, failed to clean up another of Widdop’s brilliant kicks.
Despite the absence of Dugan, then, the Dragons seemed in a relatively good position to score, especially after a brilliant burst from Widdop right on the line, only for Aidan Sezer to intercept his subsequent pass and run all the way from within the Raiders twenty to ground the ball beneath the posts, with Macdonald, Lafai and de Belin unable to even glimpse a chance at bringing him to ground.
With Croker easily adding the extras, it was a breakthrough moment for the Raiders, who hadn’t scored through the opening minutes, and who needed just this display of individual brilliance to rally their spirits and remind them that they had a home crowd on their side. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the points were put down with Mann and Dugan both absent from the field, and the Dragons backline was clearly depleted as they struggled to take down Sezer before it was too late.
Following a fairly soft penalty goal for the Raiders at the sixth-fourth minute, and another for the Dragons at the seventy-first, the stage was set for a 12-12 finish. While Canberra had two chances at penalty goals, they botched both – the the first (from Austin) missed the posts and gifted the visitors a second tackle set; the second (from Sezer) was smashed back down by Lafai for the Dragons to regain possession. Widdop also tried for a one-pointer on the subsequent set, kicking, as Austin had, from too far out, and gifting the hosts a seven tackle set in turn as the game reached the seventy-five minute mark and golden point started to loom on the horizon.
Once again, the Dragons came back, with a couple of damaging runs from under the Raiders high ball that got them to their own end by the second tackle, only for Mann – possibly still a little disheveled from the head clash – to cough it up, and gift the Raiders another chance. Yet Austin couldn’t bring home his second field goal attempt, with Widdop also unable to put it through the posts for his own second attempt on the subsequent set. I don’t think I can recall a game with so many penalty goal attempts in recent history, or so many rapid and dramatic changeovers in possession in the last ten minutes, so it felt only right when Cotric was taken into touch ten seconds before the siren and each team steeled themselves for another five to ten minutes of Friday night footy.
The fact that the Raiders had already had three golden points this season – and lost each time – just added to the suspense, especially when you add in some of the near misses they’ve had this season, most notably against the Panthers and the Cowboys. Still, that just made it all the more impressive when Sezer delivered one of the best 40/20 kicks of the year, outclassing even his try at the sixtieth minute in dexterity and focus.
From fifteen metres out, the Raiders were probably too close for a field goal, but it didn’t matter, with a deft offload from Dave Taylor putting Whitehead over the line. It had been such a close game that to have seen the Raiders win off a field goal would have been frustrating, even or especially in golden point, but the combination of Sezer’s dexterity with Taylor and Whitehead’s timing made it fell like a well-won, hard-earned win, and even more cathartic – if that were possible – for Ricky Stuart, the Raiders and the fans at GIO Stadium. Meanwhile, this was one of the most heartbreaking losses in some time for the Dragons, and will surely be a impetus to bring their all when they take on the Sea Eagles at WIN Stadium next week.