Both Canberra and Parramatta headed into Sunday night’s game at GIO Stadium with a good match behind them. The Eels had doubled Cronulla at ANZ the week before, while the Raiders had secured an even more impressive win over the Cowboys in North Queensland. The stage seemed set for a fairly close match, but the Raiders ended up keeping the visitors scoreless, coming away with a 19-0 win, and remaining undefeated by Parra at GIO Stadium since the Nathan Cayless era.
Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad continued to make a good case for his tenure at fullback, cleaning up the first bomb from Mitchell Moses without too much bother. While Maika Sivo was just as adept right on the line under Jack Williams’ first kick, Moses ended the next set prematurely, with a forward pass rather than a kick or a run, thanks to some early pressure from Josh Hodgson. This marked the beginning of ten minutes of possession from Canberra, starting with a knock-on from Daniel Alvaro while trying to scoop up a lost ball from Josh Papalii at the end of the following set.
The Raiders then opted to tap and go following a slow peel – the first mistake of the match – from Tepai Moeroa on the first tackle. Jack Wighton got things going with a harbour bridge pass to the right wing, where Jordan Rapana kicked the footy back in field, leaving it wide open for Jaeman Salmon to collect it and run the length of the park. Unfortunately for the away crowd, however, the young five-eighth took the footy across the sideline, resulting in yet another bout of possession for the Raiders.
A make or break moment came when a Williams kick forced Sivo to pop the Steeden into touch, getting the green machine the first dropout of the night. After such an accumulation of field position, the Raiders had to score here, or else concede the first ten minutes of the match to a sterling defensive performance from Parra. Following five sets on their own line, the visitors finally got a letoff when Wighton knocked the footy forward after a tough Williams pass at the start of a right sweep.
All of a sudden, the Eels had the momentum, and should have scored on this set, but Salmon concluded with a fairly standard kick, which Rapana cleaned up without too much fuss. Parra survived this set, but a set later Croker made the biggest play of the night so far – an intercept pass and run down the field that would have produced points then and there if not for a superb chase and tackle from Moses. Even then, John Bateman almost got his first try in the NRL shortly after, only for Clint Gutherson to send the footy into touch, getting the Raiders their second dropout.Embed from Getty Images
Once again, this was crunch time for the home team, especially once a slow peel from Michael Jennings got them an additional bout of field position. Once again, too, they failed to capitalise on their advantage, as a bad pass from Rapana disrupted their rhythm on the right side, where Wighton lost the Steeden just as he was putting it down. Once more, finally, Gutho saved his second try, since it was his leg that got in the way as the big Canberra five-eighth was trying to get Steeden to ground.
Moses ended the next set with a good kick, but only Marata Niukore came through with the chase, allowing CNK to bring the footy back into the field of play without too much bother. Nevertheless, this marked the start of the strongest period so far for the Eels with an error and penalty from Ryan Sutton – for holding down – and a linebreak from Takairangi giving them their first chance to play the football for a sustained period of time.
At these kind of moments, Blake Fergsuon – like James Maloney – can be a team’s biggest asset, or a team’s biggest liability, depending on how well he calculates risk. This time Fergo was the latter, making the error that set up Canberra for their first try of the night. By this stage, the green machine had strategised so much with the Steeden, and spent so much time down Parra’s end of the field, that they just needed a muscly effort up through the ruck, and a big individual effort to get back in control.
That’s just what they achieved on the set after Fergo’s mistake, moving rapidly towards the line, where a superb pass from Hodgson found Papalii on the chest. Making up for his lost ball in the early minutes of the game, Papalii simply barged through Moeroa – just the one-on-one contest the Raiders needed to win – to slam down the first try of the night, before Croker booted through the conversion to make it a six point margin.
This was a rousing – and necessary – moment for the Raiders, but the Eels were still doing pretty good to be only six points behind, given their enormous deficit in possession and field position over the course of the game so far – and given that the hosts showed no sign of decelarating. Seven minutes out from the siren, CNK cleaned up Moses’ most dangerous bomb so far, falling to ground to catch it, but catching it nonetheless. Leilua made a brilliant linebreak early in the next set, but couldn’t see Rapana, allowing the Eels to regather their defensive line in time.Embed from Getty Images
Leilua did find Rapana at the end of the set, during a fairly fumbly shift to the right, but the Eels successfully bundled the elusive winger into touch, surviving the most dangerous set since Papalii had scored. They didn’t do much with the letoff, though, since Kane Evans coughed up the footy almost immediately, reducing them to about 30% of possession after forty minutes of football. No surprise, then, that the next sequence played as a compressed version of the Raiders’ previous two periods of possession, starting with a third dropout after Takairangi sent a Hogdson kick dead.
Joseph Tapine got things rolling with a big opening run, and Croker almost crashed over on the left edge, forcing the Eels to bring all their defensive pressure to bear on preventing a second Canberra try. They prevented the try, but not the points, as Tim Mannah was pinged for a flop a couple of tackles later. This time, the Raiders chose to take the two, bringing them to an eight point lead when the siren rang out – still, though, not an especially damaging advantage given how thoroughly they’d dominated the park over these opening forty minutes.
The second stanza started with a strong defensive display from the Raiders, with Isosia Soliola making the hit of the night on Salmon, and CNK making the best trysaver so far with a low tackle on Nikukore. Their attack was less confident, as Williams followed up these two power plays with an overlong kick, before Fergo let the ball bounce in touch, getting the Eels a seven tackle set. It was Ferguson’s last decision of the night, since he was taken off shortly after due to a head clash in the first half, and replaced by David Gower, forcing a reshuffle in the middle of the pack.
Canberra took advantage of the reshuffle, starting with Nick Cotric coming up with the football at the end of an awkward right sweep from the Eels before breaking through the line and into open space. Yet Parra managed to contain Cotric, before Marata Niukore made one of the best tackles of the season so far to prevent Elliott Whitehead scoring off exactly the same Hodgson pass that had put Papalii over the line towards the end of the first stanza.
With Fergo still on the field, the Eels might have scored in the wake of this stellar defence, but Gower botched the end of their next set, allowing CNK to scoop up the footy and start another wave of Canberra attack, which was soon consolidated and funneled through a quick tap from Rapana on the first tackle following a slow peel from Michael Jennings. This time the Hodgson-Whitehead combo worked, as the no. 9’s kick ricocheted off Moses, and was rolled forward by Peni Terepo straight into the hands of the Raiders’ big second-rower.Embed from Getty Images
Canberra had been trying to self-correct all night after failing to score during their first two big bouts of field position, so this smaller moment of self-correction – Hodgson and Whitehead getting a second crack at it – seemed to resettle their game. They remained two converted tries ahead, however, when Croker’s conversion shanked away to the left of the posts, before the game was briefly paused while Tapine was taken off the field with possible ankle syndesmosis, and replaced by Hudson Young in the no. 15 jumper in only his third NRL appearance.
As if determined to make up for Tapine’s absence, and for his missed conversion, Croker leapt up to catch the high ball at the end of the next set, but ended up knocking it into Gutherson’s chest. Wighton compounded this messy period with a hand in the ruck a few tackles later, as Parra glimpsed their best rhythm of the second half, only for Alvaro to make his second knock-on a couple of sets later, this time at the tail end of a Mitchell Moses bomb.
Sixteen minutes in, Hodgson tried to steady the ship with a 40/20, but the ball careeed off the side of his boot, getting Parra the scrum feed after Sivo let it pivot into touch. Once again, though, an Alvaro cough-up cost the Eels their momentum, putting them on the back foot as the Raiders got into the attacking groove that would culminate with their third and final try. This final drive started with yet another dropout for the Raiders, thanks to a Wighton kick that only just trapped Takairangi in goal, and Parra kicked quickly, forcing Canberra to attention.
Junior Paulo made a brief dent in the green machine’s energy by taking an intercept after giving one away earlier in the game, but the blue and gold advantage was short lived, as CNK caught Moses’ next bomb on the ground and shifted it out to Cotric, who broke through the line before – only just – being held up by Paulo. This break was the surge that the Raiders needed to consolidate, and sure enough they scored at the end of this set, via a Williams kick that Wighton caught on the full, on the line, before slamming the Steeden to ground, all in one elegant motion.
After so many frustrated opportunities, the simplicity and dexterity of this halves combo was just what the Raiders needed to seal the deal, and they were finally in full gear, escalating to an eighteen point lead once Croker added the extras. In fact, they’d worked so hard to reach full gear that this try felt like the summative statement of the game, perhaps explaining why their victory felt so emphatic despite the fact that they wouldn’t score another try.Embed from Getty Images
Five minutes out from the end, Williams compounded his superb kicking game with a field goal, proving, one more time, that the Raiders really were in control of the game as they’d appeared to be during those magnificent opening attack sequences. They’ll be looking for an equally emphatic win, and a bigger win margin, when they host the Broncos for a second home fixture at GIO, while the Eels will be anxious to score points, first and foremost, when they host the Tigers for the first ever game at the new Bankwest Stadium.