ROUND 6: Canberra Raiders v. Brisbane Broncos (GIO Stadium, 21/4/19)

Canberra and Brisbane were coming off very different home games when they met at GIO Stadium for the last match of Round 6. On the one hand, the Raiders had managed to keep Parramatta scoreless in Canberra the week before, despite Blake Ferguson and Mitchell Moses’ best efforts to organise their team into a try. On the other hand, the Broncos had suffered a humiliating loss to the Tigers at Suncorp, and were keen to prove their mettle as quickly as possible when they rocked up at GIO.

Things started off messily for the visitors, with Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad easily shepherding a mistimed Anthony Milford grubber into touch, to get his team an early seven tackle set. At the other end of the park, Josh Hodgson was pinged for a tackle on Darius Boyd while he was in the air. In slow motion, it seemed pretty clear that the Canberra hooker was trying to contest the ball, but it was still a fair call, although didn’t amount to much for Brisbane when a handling error from Kotoni Staggs saw Jarrod Croker regain possession of the football almost immediately.

A few tackles later, Croker provided the offload that got the Raiders their first try, collecting the footy after Hodgson sent it through the halves to the left edge of the field. The Broncos were man on man, and should have been able to clean up the play, but somehow Croker twisted out of Staggs and Isaako’s combined tackle, before sending the ball across to Nick Cotric with a left-handed flick pass that was destined to send the big winger over for the first four points of the night.

This was a really dexterous play for Canberra to start the game, even if Croker’s conversion attempt bounced off the uprights, keeping them to a four point lead. They doubled down on their defence at the start of the next set, totally cleaning up Boyd, who now started to show the first real signs of the ankle discomfort that would niggle at him over the rest of the game. The green attack was just as good, with Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua spearheading the start of their next set, requiring a massive Brisbane effort to contain them on the first two tackles.

At the other end of the field, Isaako only just made it back into the field of play after cleaning up CNK’s last-tackle kick, while all the pressure on the Broncos consolidated two tackles later, when Alex Glenn lost the football under some big pressure from Leilua. With Boyd appealing desperately for a strip, this should have been the second tryscoring opportunity of the night for the Raiders, but a second error from Hodgson – a forward pass early in the tackle count – meant that they were unable to finish.

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This was the platform that Brisbane needed to start reforming, as an intercept from Staggs on CNK, and a near-40/20 from Andrew McCullough, saw them gradually rebuild their sense of focus and purpose. While McCullough might have been pinged for a marginally high shot on CNK, a penalty on Elliott Whitehead for an obstruction gave Brisbane the advantage once again, although the next Canberra error proved to be the most costly, opening up the Broncos for their first four points of the night.

It came off the best Brisbane run of the game so far – a skittering, restless effort from Bird, who seemed to be condensing all his pent-up frustration following last week’s game against the Tigers into his trajectory, trying to outrun that forgettable fixture at Suncorp as he asked one question of the Canberra defence after another, continually restarting just when he seemed to be cornered and contained. No surprise that it ended with a penalty on Papalii for holding Bird down, in what would become the long-range assist for the first Brisbane try.

Two tackles later, Milford righted a clumsy pass by kicking it, soccer-style, into position, before almost breaking his way through the Raiders’ left edge on the fourth tackle. Sensing his opportunity, Milf shot through a quick play-the-ball before Canberra could regather, shifting the Steeden across to Kodi Nikorima, who saw that Jack Wighton was out of position, and took advantage of the yawning space between him and Croker to slam through and score before CNK could arrive in time to prevent him.

With Isaako’s kick bouncing off the uprights, the score was levelled at 4-4, setting the stage for one of the closest games of Round 6, at least during certain periods. Nevertheless, the rest of the first stanza was all Canberra, as Leilua put down a pair of tries that seemed to virtually guarantee the green machine the win, so thoroughly and decisively did they decimate the Brisbane defence.

The first came on the back of one of the most extraordinary Canberra sequences so far in 2019, as well as one of the most unusual and exhilarating team try efforts. Ten minutes out from the siren, the Raiders quickly shifted the football across to the right side of the field, before heading back inside, changing directions several times through Wighton and CNK. So quickly did the play proceed that the Raiders didn’t quite seem to cop on to the final tackle, while Wighton seemed to be improvising as he sent across an awkward pass that didn’t feel targeted at any particular player.

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Reading the situation perfectly, however, Leilua scooped up the footy, fended off Bird, fended off Milford and then slammed straight through Boyd to score the next four points. There was a sense of serendipity about this try, since at moments the Raiders seemed to be acting on pure instinct, coming as close as possible to recklessness, only for Leilua to use his enormous speed and strength to correct – or perhaps just consummate – the play, disposing of three of the Broncos’ key playmakers in the process.

Once again, Croker missed the uprights, keeping the score to 8-4, but it didn’t take the Raiders long to build upon that lead. A set later, they started a scrum play with a series of wide passes over to their right edge, where Bateman appeared to be contained under a mound of Brisbane jerseys, led by Milford, only to offload to Leilua for another four points. Bateman almost broke out of the tackle, meaning that all of Brisbane’s effort was on holding him down, rather than paying attention to the player around him, allowing Leilua to cross over with considerably less effort this time around.

Given the strength of this combined tackle, the offload was surprisingly elegant and understated – a short, simple pass right on the ground, with Bateman more or less kneeling as he popped the ball across to Leilua. Finally, Croker sent through the extras, and as the first conversion of the night it felt like a turning-point in Canberra’s favour – a surge that the hosts needed when CNK was downed during a freak collision with Milford a minute out from the siren, leading to him being stretchered off with a hyperextension of the knee that muted his game during the second stanza.

The next twenty minutes belonged to Brisbane, who put down two equally spectacular tries – albeit very different – after returning from the sheds. The first came shortly after James Roberts had come onto the park, and saw the Broncos move the footy over to their right edge, where Nikorima just managed to get a pinpoint pass across to Fifita before being skittled by the Canberra defence. From there, it was a one-man effort, as Fifita dummied, got past Croker, and then got the ball down, with Isaako’s conversion making it a four point game once again.

No surprise that the Broncos felt resurgent on the next set, with only a big tackle from Cotric preventing Gillett from breaking through on the short side. Yet the Raiders responded with one of their most aggressive combinations of the night so far, with big runs from Leilua and Hodgson laying the platform for a set that arrived at the last tackle so quickly that Oates and Boyd were unable to communicate properly under the high ball, resulting in Oates fumbling it, and Milford letting it slip through his hands a moment later.

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Between Oates and Milford’s errors, this was probably the low point of the game for Brisbane, although both players would have a chance to make up for their errors shortly after. In part, that was because the Raiders let another brilliant tryscoring opportunity go begging, as an unforced error from Wighton on the second tackle got the Broncos back in possession almost immediately. The silver lining was that Whitehead dashed forward to ground the footy in goal to prevent a seven-tackle set, but it was a small consolation, given how quickly Brisbane got rolling again now.

The next sequence felt like a training run, or a playbook demonstration, starting with a strong run from Glenn on the third tackle off an inside ball from Milford, after which Ofahengae straightened up the play and asked some big questions of Canberra’s big boppers. At the end of it all, Milford found himself with the football, and judged that a right-foot kick wouldn’t work its way through the defence, opting instead for a left-boot effort that sat up perfectly for Oates on the left edge.

With Rapana unable to get there in time, and CNK held up by his knee injury, Oates collected the footy square on the chest and brought it to ground, all in one elegant movement, while Isaako’s conversion put Brisbane ahead for the first time in the game. It had almost been worth Oates and Milford’s underwhelming night for this amazing comeback, as the Broncos now had a pair of tries to answer Leilua’s two efforts at the end of the first half.

Things were starting to get precarious for the Raiders, who needed a strong individual play to get themselves back on the scoreboard. A few minutes later, that’s just what Bateman provided, gathering the Steeden right on the chalk, dummying left, and drawing Boyd off his line, before burrowing through a wall of Brisbane defenders to put the Raiders ahead once again. Full credit has to go to Wighton too, for the 40/20 kick that provided the field position – a critical moment in his evolution at five-eighth.

It was only a few minutes before another Canberra enforcer crashed through, thanks to a serendipitous sequence of play that saw Hodgson pass to Wighton, whose kick ricocheted off Nikorima, and caught Boyd in the line. Sensing his opportunity, Ryan Sutton gathered up the football and set his sights on Joe Ofahengaue, who managed to grab him by the jersey, but couldn’t contend with the speed and strength of the Canberra lock, who tumbled over him, and actually used him as leverage, before stretching out an arm to score.

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With Croker booting through the conversion, the Raiders were now a solid ten points ahead of the Broncos, with ten minutes left on the clock. Only a consolation try from Jack Bird two minutes out from the siren made a dent in that lead, in what was a good final show of strength from the ex-Shark, but too little too late in terms of Canberra’s late surge. Brisbane will be desperate for a win, then, when they take on the Sharks in Round 7, while the Raiders will be keen to continue this dream run when they travel to Brookvale to take on the Sea Eagles on Sunday afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (731 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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