The Raiders have come away with what may well be the decisive game in their buildup towards finals football, decimating the Rabbitohs with some of their strongest and most dexterous movements in weeks despite a spectacular consolation try from the cardinal and myrtle in the final seconds of the match. At no point this year has Jarrod Croker’s leadership and vision been so refined, with the big man managing six from six conversions and several spectacular try assists to put some of the Canberra young guns into the spotlight.
The Rabbitohs had a frustrating start to the game, partly as a result of two unfortunate plays from Hymel Hunt. Two minutes in, Adam Reynolds put in a beautiful grubber, but the bounce that eluded the Canberra defence also made it difficult for Hunt to properly maintain possession, with replay footage showing that he’d coughed up the ball shortly after arriving at it and hadn’t been able to properly regain possession before sliding over the dead ball line a couple of seconds later.
To make matters worse, Hunt came up with an error – albeit a pretty mild error – in the play-the-ball on the fourth tackle a couple of sets later, while Souths were still stuck in their own twenty to boot, gifting the Raiders their best attacking opportunity of the game so far. While Canberra didn’t make it across this time, the Bunnies’ momentum had been sufficiently dented from the outset for the visitors to consolidate their confidence, just as Reynolds’ superb work with the boot made it clear that they had to focus their defensive efforts on containing and controlling his genius.
Sure enough, at the fifth minute, Blake Austin stormed in to put the Rabbitohs halfback under considerable pressure, preventing him even getting in a fifth tackle kick – the ball barely touched his boot – and disheveling South Sydney enough for the Raiders to receive a penalty a couple of tackles later. From there, Austin built on his playmaking efforts, dummying a couple of times to draw in the defence before popping the Steeden over to Jack Wighton, who took advantage of the surprise in the South Sydney defence to send a short ball over to Jarrod Croker.
To their credit, the Bunnies regrouped, with Robert Jennings launching himself around Croker’s legs and Alex Johnston leaping on his back, but Croker stormed forward, falling to the ground and reaching out one arm to plant the Steeden over the line in a massive display of conviction, confidence and sheer strength, not least because this also made him the second top Canberra tryscorer of all time, following Brett Mullins. With Croker adding the extras and then sending through a penalty goal at the seventeenth minute, the Raiders were clearly the superior team at this point, even if the disorganisation of the Rabbitohs’ defensive line perhaps made Canberra seem a little more cohesive and focused than they actually were, at least compared to the standard of some of their previous games in 2017.
Two minutes after the penalty goal, Croker cemented this as one of his flagship games of the year with a try assist that was even more spectacular than his opening try. Bombing the ball from the right side of the field, Croker uncannily timed and placed it to find one of the key chinks in the Bunnies’ defence – Jennings’ tendency, this game, to be out of position – with the ball actually landing on Jennings’ boot, before skidding over, parallel to the try line, until it had sat up almost in front of the posts, in what momentarily felt more like a game of soccer than a Saturday night rugby league fixture.
Sensing his opportunity, Joseph Tapine slammed forward to pick up the ball, carrying Johnston and Jennings as effortlessly as Croker had ten minutes before, and slamming to ground just short of the line, only for the slow-motion footage to show that the very tip of the Steeden had made contact with the chalk. So eloquently did it channel Croker’s opening four-pointer – the storm at the line, the role of Johnston and Jennings, the determination to get the Steeden to ground – that it felt as if Croker’s presence and leadership had played a critical role here as well.
Full credit has to go to Joey Leilua too, who built field position for Sezer in the first place with a damaging, brutal run down the right side of the field, replete with a sequence of tackle busts that made it more than clear that he was prepared to single-handedly invoke the combined power of Lepana with Jordan Rapana himself still off the field, capping it off with a brilliant pass to Elliott Whitehead that set Sezer up for his amazing kick.
So brilliant, indeed, was this second Raiders try – and so drastically did it show up the Bunnies’ defence – that it actually seemed to work to South Sydney’s advantage, steeling them to consolidate their focus to avoid utter humiliation. It paid dividends pretty quickly too, with a goal line dropout a couple of minutes later providing them with some sustained possession and field position, as well as allowing them to put some genuine pressure on the visitors for the first time since Reynolds’ grubber in the opening minutes.
No surprise, then, that Reyno played a critical role this time as well, getting the cardinal and myrtle in close to the line with a dexterous dummy and run, although it turned out to be Cody Walker – shifted back to five-eighth following eight weeks in the no. 1 jersey – who proved to be the dominant playmaker this time around. Collecting a long pass from Damien Cook, Walker momentarily looked set to run the ball, only to send through a grubber to match Reynolds’ efforts at the second minute, threading it through the Canberra defence and then following it himself to ground it with one hand right on the dead ball line.
It was a four-pointer that felt like a turning-point for a couple of reasons, echoing both Reynolds’ opening kick but also Croker’s own one-handed putdown to suggest that the Bunnies could recapitulate some of their earlier promise and match the Raiders’ most prodigious moments if they really put their mind to it. It didn’t hurt, either, to see Walker slotting back into the no. 6 jersey with confidence, and proving a worthy halves partner to Reynolds, with the bounce of the ball perfectly weighted to elude Wighton, who ran off in the wrong direction only to find that Walker had got there before him by the time that he corrected his trajectory.
With Reynolds adding the extras shortly after, the Bunnies were only eight points behind, and felt as if they’d put themselves back in the game in a pretty emphatic way, even if they had to be the next to score – ideally, before half time – to really make the most of their renewed momentum. As it turned out, however, Souths’ resurgence just offered the Raiders the platform for an even more dramatic demonstration of their strength and dexterity, with Tapine and Croker setting up Nick Cotric to slam over in the left wing a couple of minutes later.
It started with Tapine putting in a run to rival Leilua’s several minutes before, busting through a combined tackle from Reynolds and Angus Crichton to get the Steeden over to Croker, who quickly passed it on to Cotric in turn. Once he got it to ground, the young winger became the first Canberra player to put down six tries in six consecutive games since Brandon Pearson in 1998 – a historical moment that worked symmetrically with Croker’s opening milestone to cement this first half of the game as one of the most rousing and galvanising for the Raiders over the course of 2017.
The first ten minutes after the break were a bit stop-and-start for both teams, but especially for the Bunnies, who glimpsed a couple of decent tryscoring opportunities – or at least opportunities for more field position and possession – but squandered them just as they were starting to consolidate. In order to put down more points, then, it almost felt as if the Rabbitohs needed to have a backup plan, or an insurance policy, for the next time that they didn’t make good on their momentum.
As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened, with Reynolds sending through a beautiful grubber at the fiftieth minute in a reprise of his opening kick, setting it up perfectly for both Bryson Goodwin and John Sutton to get it to ground, only for the Steeden to flip and spin through both players’ hands. Yet that complete inability to take control of the bounce actually worked to Souths’ advantage, since it meant that the ball was still live when Tyrell Fuimaono stormed in as the Bunnies’ insurance policy, getting ahead of Goodwin and Sutton to slam the Steeden to ground moments before he slid into touch.
It was a rousing moment for the Rabbitohs, not simply because it felt that they’d finally made good on Reynolds’ opening kick and vision from the halves, but because it marked Fuimaono’s debut NRL try, allowing the cardinal and myrtle to chalk this up as a bit of a momentous game for themselves as well following Croker and Cotric’s entry into the record books. With Reynolds slipping on the conversion but still managing to send the Steeden through the posts, the Bunnies were back in the game, resuming the eight-point differential they’d glimpsed before Cotric’s four-pointer, and more determined than ever to put down the next try.
Things took a very dramatic turn for the Rabbitohs a couple of minutes later, however, when they lost two of their most powerful playmakers in the space of thirty seconds. In a dispiriting sequel to his trysaving kick and spectacular conversion, Reynolds was downed from a high tackle from Josh Hodgson that should really have resulted in a penalty, and led off the field shortly after. In the same set, Angus Crichton held down Cotric as he was trying to get to the play-the-ball and was sent to the bin for ten minutes in response, leaving the game at the same time as Reynolds.
If it wasn’t bad enough for the Bunnies to be down to twelve men and without their star half – Sutton quickly slotted back into the five-eighth jersey and Walker moved to no. 7 – Sam Burgess had been taken off at the beginning of the second stanza with what appeared to be a rib or chest injury. So suddenly and abruptly had the South Sydney lineup been reconfigured that it wouldn’t take much for the Raiders to score if they took rapid advantage of their opportunity – and they did, with Hodgson sending a long ball across to Luke Bateman to crash over for his own debut NRL try.
All of a sudden, it felt as if Fuimaono had been trumped, and the Raiders had re-established the game as a milestone match, with Bateman seeming to draw upon all of the short-range tries of the game so far to crash through the South Sydney defence more effortlessly than any of the previous Canberra pointscorers, and Johnston not even managing to get a hand to him as he bounced over the line beside the posts. From there, it was a foregone conclusion that Croker would slot the ball through, making it five from five and cementing what seemed to be an unassailable lead for the Raiders.
If there were any doubt about whether the Raiders had won the game, then it was smashed when Michael Oldfield crashed over for four more points a couple of minutes later, marking his first NRL try in Canberra colours and adding yet another reason to call this a milestone match for the visitors. It came off a try assist from Croker who collected a pitch perfect wide pass from Hodgson and then sent a soaring harbour bridge pass to find Oldfield more or less unmarked. From there, the big winger managed a put-down that looked even better in slow motion, and that rivalled any ofthe one-handed efforts made over the course of the game, planting the Steeden in the corner of the field miliseconds before Fuimaono and Walker crashed in to send him out of the field of play.
With Crichton jogging back onto the field as Croker lined up the conversion, the Raiders had more than capitalised on the twelve-man team, and as the Canberra half made it six from six it was hard not to feel that we were witnessing a critical game – possibly the critical game – for the Raiders’ consolidation in the march towards finals football, not least because of how elegantly the young guns and veterans had synced up, with Dave Taylor also putting in a damaging run to set up Bateman for the penultimate Raiders try.
The Bunnies weren’t quite done, however, with a head clash between Robbie Farah and Jeff Lima seven minutes out from the end seeming to briefly reset the game and provide the hosts with a little more breathing space. From there, they made a few efforts to get over, but found themselves thwarted, with Goodwin almost crashing over in the corner only for Sezer and Leilua to boot him into touch at the last minute, and Farah making his way up the sideline only to send the ball over the edge in the face of the Canberra pack defence.
Twenty seconds out from the end, however, and on the back of a scrum, the Bunnies saw their opportunity, with Goodwin finding space out on the left edge and booting the Steeden across to the inside, where Johnston caught it on the full at high speed and slammed it to earth as the final siren rang out. It was the best kind of consolation try – compact, decisive and confident enough to remind the team that this might just not have been their night, especially with the added spectacle of Johnston making good on his mild defensive efforts throughout the game with his first really decisive gesture of the game in the no. 1 jersey. With Reynolds adding the extras, then, the Rabbitohs came away with a bit of pride, and you can be sure that these last few seconds will be in the forefront of their minds when they take on the Dragons next week.