Canberra had scored 34 or more in four of their last five games, and had the best defensive stats of 2020, when they hosted the Warriors at GIO on Sunday afternoon, which made it all the more surprising when New Zealand gave them a real run for their money in the first half. They’d almost taken control of the match by the half hour mark, but the Raiders gradually recovered to come away with a 26-14 win – not the margin you’d expect from the only finals eligible team on the park, playing at home to boot.
The green machine had to wait another week to get Iosioa Soliola back from his facial fracture, and lost both George Williams and Jarrod Croker to HIAs – the later in the midst of a try – in the first half, while Siliva Havili was named at hooker with Tom Starling on the bench. Meanwhile, Tohu Harris and Isaiah Papali’i had swapped their prop and second row positions, and Adam Keighran and Hayze Perham were at centre and wing respectively with the 2020 loan players departing the squad.
Canberra lost some early field position when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad reached back his boot to get his men fifty opening metres, but failed to make contact with the dead ball line, although Dunamis Lui recouped some space with an offload early in the first tackle count. Both teams rolled up and down the park for the first couple of sets, with Jack Wighton choosing run the footy up the left on his second carry, before a Perham error granted the hosts their first real attacking opportunity.
CNK now made a half-break on the right edge, but he was caught on the last, and Joseph Tapine conceded the first ruck error of the match to give the Warriors their first attacking chance in turn. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck made twenty metres up the middle, and Papali’i knocked back Kodi Nikorima’s kick to Chanel Harris-Tevita, who got it across to Tohu Harris for a second effort with the boot. The Raiders had scrambled in to position by now, though, and so the Steeden ricocheted off a sea of green jerseys.
New Zealand got the first penalty of the match when John Bateman crowded Perham on tackle one of the next set, although Canberra could probably have gone for a Captain’s Challenge here, since the replay made this look more like a loose carry from the new Zealand no. 5. Play paused as George Williams was taken off the park after copping a huge tackle from Lachlan Burr and Keighran in the first few minutes of the game, and the Warriors used this breathing-space to consolidate into their first try.
They looked genuinely dangerous for the first time at the end of the next set, when a Chanel grubber, although overlong, caused havoc with the Canberra defence. Two plays later, Bateman followed the first penalty with the first error, dropping the footy cold on play two. RTS made big metres up the left out of the scrum, Peta Hiku dragged the play right on the third, and Nikorima booted the footy that way again on the last, where Hiku completed his earlier run by putting it down just before the dead ball line.
The Raiders had now conceded the first try in their eighth straight game, while Hiku was enjoying his best tryscoring season since 2015 at Manly. Burr slid to the ground on the first tackle as the rain started to get heavier over Bruce, and Jack Murchie tried to repeat Hiku’s right-side raid, but found himself halted with a terrific low tackle from Wighton. Nikorima’s next kick was strong, and Keighran got a good play at it on the left edge, but the Raiders stayed staunch, as Havili got them rolling with a Wighton offload.
Elliott Whitehead took a rare bomb on the last with Williams off the park, and the chase forced an offside from Hiku, as the Raiders got their third tackle inside the Warriors’ twenty. Josh Papalii barged into three players beside the left post on the second, Tapine did the same on the right, and Wighton built on the big men with a short ball to assist Croker. This was equally heroic from Croker, who ran straight into a brutal last-ditch tackle from RTS, bouncing off him head-to-head to get the ball down.
With the conversion sorted Croker was only sixteen points behind Cameron Smith for the most points ever scored against the Warriors. Papalii got them rolling with an offload on the ground to CNK early in the tackle count, propelling his men almost seventy metres up the park, but Adam Pompey was safe under the biggest bomb of the afternoon from Wighton. Meanwhile, Williams had failed his HIA, and Croker headed off the park for an HIA after his tryscoring contact with Tuivasa-Sheck.
Canberra were now without their halfback and their captain – and Hiku seized the moment with the biggest hit of his career to dislodge the footy from Sami Valemei’s grasp. A tackle later, Bateman received his second penalty, for working on the ground, and the Warriors chose to take the two, as CNK popped it through from right in front. Five minutes later he was able to do it again, when Papalii was pinged for undue action on Burr on the far side of the scrum, since this was foul play, rather than a differential.
Both teams got a warning, but Papali’I pushed the envelope by pulling Harris back by the hair on the very next tackle, meaning that an offside penalty from Wighton proved to be the final straw for referee Chris Sutton, who sent him to the bin against the loud objections of his team mates, while Ricky Stuart went ballistic in the coaches’ box, throwing his water bottle at the window in a bit of instant rugby league folklore.
New Zealand had all the momentum now, and made the most of it, at least during these first few minutes, as Harris-Tevita dummied and shifted the footy left to Nikorima, who carried it into the line to clear up space for a Hiku double. This was all class from Hiku, who received the ball at the ten, dodged over a low tackle from Corey Harawira-Naera, and pivoted from foot to foot over a second low hit from CNK to reach out his right hand and slam the Steeden over the line.
These would be the last points New Zealand scored all game, though, since Harris-Tevita missed only his fourth conversion of the year to keep them at 6-14. Nevertheless, they had the best restart of the entire match, as Murchie drove into the right corner again, bumping off three defenders before CNK replicated Wighton’s earlier trysaver. Murchie still got the offload out the back, but the footy missed its mark, although the Warriors got an offside penalty, and dug into Canberra once more.
The Raiders needed a big game-changer – and they got it when Valemei scooped up a Tevaga offload, running the length of the field and staying seven metres ahead of Chanel to cross over untouched. With a roaring GIO home crowd behind him, and the entire team running down the park to congratulate him, this was the ultimate try against the run of play – and turned out to be the pivotal turning-point in the game, closing the deficit to two points once Croker, back from his HIA, converted again.
While the Raiders had a strong restart, running it on the last didn’t quite pan out, as the slippery conditions prevented Valemei from securing Croker’s final flick pass. Still, they made good on their very next set, when Jordan Rapana offloaded on the third, Nick Cotric smashed up the right wing, and Whitehead made not one but two kicks – the first up the right sideline for himself, and the second back in field, where Ryan Sutton seemed to make a slight third kick before Young scored beside the posts.
Whitehead’s first kick was especially impressive, since it looked like one of the two fullbacks must get a hand to it, only for the Steeden to careen backwards off the wet tuff and land right on Whitehead’s own chest, where he very nearly fumbled it forwards before getting his boot to it for a second time. The putdown was even more miraculous, as Young did spill it forward, while almost flat on the ground, but somehow managed to collect and secure it to end the clutchiest Canberra sequence all year.
This was sublime wet-weather footy, a miraculous tryscoring sequence, and possibly the best try before half time all year. Croker added the extras and the Raiders were finally ahead as Wighton returned from the bin, only to drop the kickoff for his first touch back. It didn’t matter much, though, since with only eighty seconds left on the clock the Warriors didn’t have enough time to restore their momentum, and headed to the sheds two in the red, despite having secured the first dropout of the game.
The sun was shining again when they returned from the break, and for ten minutes the Warriors did a pretty good job of stemming the flow of Canberra points. Three minutes in RTS broke through the line, and a couple of minutes later New Zealand got their second dropout. Their last big chance came when Bateman hyperextended his right elbow under Rapana and Wayde Egan, momentarily making it a twelve man team as Nikorima booted the ball deep into the left corner to force a third goal line dropout.
The visitors got a fresh set with a Tapine ruck error, as Bateman continued to play on, and Josh Curran spun into the left padding, but the Raiders bounced back with their second intercept try, as Whitehead collected a RTS pass and linked up with Rapana in the middle of the park. CNK fed a rapid play-the-ball out to Wighton, who swept it left to Croker to pop it across to Valemei five metres out from the New Zealand line.
The Warriors had ample time to clean this up, but instead Valemei turned a wing play into one of the best one-man efforts of Round 19, collecting the flick pass from Croker, bumping off Harris-Tevita and tackling his way through Hiku to make it to the line for his first double, and the second time he’d ended a hundred-metre try against the run of play. Croker missed the conversion, but the Raiders were still a converted try ahead, and added a penalty kick when Tom Ale was called offside a couple of minutes later.
The final blow for New Zealand came on the cusp of the last quarter, when RTS came to ground with footy under his arm under a low tackle from Cotric, injuring his hamstring in the process. He left the field with what appeared to be a season-ending issue, but can hold his head high with the most running metres of 2020 – a staggering 3465 to Clint Gutherson’s 3227 and James Tedesco’s 3166. Hiku crossed over four minutes later, but the try was denied due to an obstruction from Murchie.
Hiku still had the best spiral kick of the game left in him, at the sixty-fifth minute, but the Raiders were pretty clinical now, even if Valemei had been split around the left eye after copping Nikorima’s elbow in the face. Rapana and Starling dragged Hiku back in goal at the end of this set, but the dropout turned into a tap when Papali’i was penalised for slamming into CNK after he’d got the kick away. The attack came apart on tackle three, but Canberra didn’t have to wait too long for their final four points.
The tipping-point came when Murchie was pinged and put on report for a dangerous tackle on Valemei, who headed off the field after a tough five minutes. While the big second-rower had slipped, he’d also gone in high to begin with, and Burr followed with another high one, this time on Hudson Young. Although the Warriors survived here and got to another Hiku bomb, a pair of offloads – Young to Starling, Harawira-Naera to Rapana – set up Cotric to conclude a superb right sweep with a try in the corner.
Canberra had failed to find Cotric a few times during this second stanza, so this was a real consolidation play, right down to Cotric’s showmanship in the putdown, when he leaped into air without a Warrior in sight, twisting and landing-Steeden first with his right arm. The Raiders have conceded the least points in the last quarter of the competition all year – less than three on average – and they kept New Zealand out to continue that streak here, steeling themselves for a big one against Cronulla next week.