Friday night’s game was a genuine Grand Final rematch, with the loser destined to play last game of football in 2020 when the Roosters and Raiders rocked up at the SCG. Both teams went end to end for the first couple of minutes, until Jared Waerea-Hargreaves put pressure – mild pressure – on Jack Wighton as he shaped for a bomb several sets in.
Canberra now had the first attacking opportunity, and got another six tackles when James Tedesco tripped over in front of the posts, and Jake Friend infringed the ruck, before Josh Papalii barged through the defence for the first four points. It felt like Papalii had simply continued his splendid run up the middle from a minute before, dodging a low tackle from Boyd Cordner, and slamming through Isaac Liu, JWH and Luke Keary, who knocked heads with him while rolling around in the wake of it all.
Keary was sent off for an HIA, and replaced by Angus Crichton – a big blow for the Chooks at this early stage – while Jarrod Croker booted through the first conversion from right in front to put Canberra a point per minute. Sio Siua Taukeiaho got the Roosters rolling with an offload to Tedesco on the second set, and Crichton followed suit with another offload to his fullback, but Teddy couldn’t follow suit, aiming for a third piece of second phase play that Croker collected before Kyle Flanagan got to it.
All of a sudden the Raiders were back on the front foot, and effectively had a second restart since the Tricolours had only turned it over on the second tackle. Yet Mitch Aubusson was Mr. Reliable at the end of the next Canberra set, leaping up to catch a George Williams kick that initially seemed destined to find Wighton on the chest.
Once again, the Roosters couldn’t sync the second phase play, as Jake Friend ran back ten metres to collect an errant Daniel Tupou offload, costing them enough momentum for Semi Valemei to slide to ground beneath the next bomb, for only his ninth game of first-grade football. Teddy was just as good under Wighton’s highest kick of the night, and made a good run three tackles later to settle the Roosters into their first big attacking opportunity.
They got their first repeat set when Tupou leaped up to tap back a Flanagan kick that was quickly cleaned up by Canberra, albeit not without a Jordan Rapana escorts that got the Tricolours a fresh shot from the ten. In the most bizarre sequence so far, they almost scored off a Canberra assist, as Flanagan passed to nobody, and Rapana knocked it on to Teddy, who shifted it across to Brett Morris in turn.
B-Moz shaped to shift out to Tupou, but found the Giraffe five metres back, although Joseph Manu tried to compensate for this organisation with the most muscular play since Papalii’s try. With a restart right on the line, Manu barged into Williams, Rapana and Nick Cotric, and somehow reached his arm out of the maelstrom, curving the Steeden towards the turf but knocking it on at the last moment.
This was a passion play from Manu, and an important show of strength for the Roosters without Keary on the park, but it still marked the end of a frustrated period for the Sydney City backline. To add insult to injury Wighton got away with a knock-on during the next set, leaving the play open for Rapana to catch a shallow Williams kick and set up Cotric for a second boot that trapped Flanagan right on the line.
The Raiders continued their perfect completion rate on the next set, with a Wighton kick that saw a surge of green jerseys convergd on Tedesco as he collected it, while Valemei proved safe under another Flanagan kick, catching the footy on the full and making his way to the ten to get the green machine rolling once again.
Papalii got a superb offload away early in the next set, bumping off Liu and Crichton as he lobbed it out to John Bateman, who built on his momentum by sending Charnze Nicoll-Klokstand through the line a second later. From there, CNK got away from Friend and Flanagan, and dragged in Tedesco, before shifting the Steeden back inside to Rapana, who momentarily looked to go all the way, only to pop it across to Williams at the last minute.
This was a spectacular sequence of passes for the Raiders, culminating with Williams ricocheting off the post as Tupou dove in for a last-ditch tackle. Keary had left the park as Croker added the first conversion, and he returned as Croker made the second – not a moment too soon for the Roosters, who had only trailed by double digits three times this season, and who were in serious danger of losing momentum if they didn’t score soon.
On the other side of the Steeden, both tries had been a testament to Papalii’s strength up the middle. History continued to repeat itself – just as JWH’s late hit on Wighton had set up the Raiders’ first try, now a high tackle on Elliott Whitehead provided Canberra with the augmented field position they needed to score on the restart.
Papalii took the first hit-up, Whitehead the second, Young the third, and Papalii the fourth, before Friend stormed in for a critical tackle on Wighton on the last. Nevertheless, Canberra got six again, and seemed galvanised by this flashback to last year’s Grand Final, as Siliva Havilii carried the Steeden over the line a second later, right beneath the posts.
The replay showed he’d come closer than initially seemed, with only Liu’s head and shoulder preventing him putting ball to ground, in what should have been a turning-point for the Chooks, who only had to defend three tackles here, but instead conceded six again, on the last tackle, for the second time in a row. The Raiders shifted left on the first, after a period spent in front of the posts, but Joe Tapine took them back to the uprights on the second tackle, in one of the best plays of his entire career.
Collecting a bouncing ball twenty metres out, he dodged away from Cordner and Keary, broke out of a half-hearted tackle from Josh Morris and then shrugged off a last-ditch effort from Keary to get the footy down. This looked like a distant chance for a try assist, let alone a try, and even outshone Tapine’s superb one-man effort against Cronulla the week before – the kind of play and belief that wins finals football.
For a moment it looked like the Roosters might bounce back, as Croker missed his first conversion of the night, and Whitehead went from tempting an error on the restart to making one. Yet the Chooks couldn’t capitalise, wasting their Captains Challenge to contest a Tupou mistake beneath Keary’s first big bomb since returning from the sidelines, and so giving the rhythm back to the Raiders, who came close to scoring one of the most spectacular tries in team history.
The play started with a superb run from Young, who offloaded for Rapana to make his way up the right sideline, where he sent the ball off his right boot. Teddy missed it, Rapana curved into touch, and then did a switcharound with Jake Starling, leaping back into the field of play to receive the Steeden as the young hooker headed over the edge.
In a beautiful moment of NRL synergy, the footy seemed to be in the air as both players sailed over the chalk in different directions, but the replay showed that Rapana hadn’t got both feet back in time, denying what would easily have been one of the best tries of the 2020 season if he’d managed to pull it off. This marked the start of a slow but steady comeback for the Roosters that culminated with Sonny Bill Williams trotting on eight minutes before the break, as Sio Siua Taukeiaho headed off with a foot injury.
SBW’s mere presence can lift a team, and that seemed to happen here, as the Roosters got into first gear for the first time all night, almost scoring off a superb sequence that started with Teddy passing to Josh Morris, and B-Moz offloading back to Teddy in turn. For a second it looked like the Raiders had cleaned up the play, but instead Keary commenced a deft right side raid that forced CNK to make the best Canberra trysaver of the game to clean up B-Moz right on the line.
Still, the Roosters had built their best field position all night, so it felt right when Josh Morris broke through the line on the left a play later, keeping the Steeden in his left hand until he shifted it at the last minute to his right, before dropping it onto his right boot for a kick that was more like a pass – a spiraling, soaring effort that found the chest of Teddy, who curved around behind the post to score in his fifth finals fixture in a row.
Flanagan added the extras, and the Chooks headed into the sheds with a ten point game. Despite not scoring since the 24th minute, and despite Williams missing a field goal on the brink of half time, the Raiders came back strong after the break, as Valemei made the most of a Cordner error with his first linebreak of the night, and Wighton built on a Crichton penalty for the next near-try of the night.
If it had been cleared, this would have been the toughest effort since Papalii’s opening four-pointer, as Wighton showed the Steeden and simply barged through Flanagan right on the line, but the try was denied due to an obstruction from Croker on Aubusson. Manu followed with a second denied try of his own, although this time around the call was considerably closer than his run on the left edge during the first half.
Manu now surged into the right wing, where he was greeted by a tackle from Valemei, but managed to roll through it, forcing Croker and Wighton to come in as last line of defence. In real time it looked like he’d come short, but in slow-mo it looked like he’d got the ball down, forcing the Bunker to scrutinize the Valemei tackle pretty closely to confirm that it was a tackle, and that the tackle had been completed, since Manu’s ball-carrying hand had reached the turf as he (initially) appeared to roll on through it.
With two successive disallowed tries – three to Canberra, two to Sydney – and two disallowed tries in succession, it was starting to feel like the next four-pointer might be the winner, either by putting the Raiders beyond a Roosters comeback, or by giving the Roosters the acceleration they needed for the back-to-back effort that would put them back in front.
Finally Manu got his try on the brink of the final quarter, collecting a Keary pass intended for Tedesco 28 metres out, fending off Croker and Valemei at the 20, and then accelerating towards the 10, where he dodged away from Whitehead and continued the momentum of his run through a low tackle from Croker. He came to ground a metre out, bouncing rather than promoting the footy, for a try that was almost as borderline as his previous denied try had been.
This was a terrific sequel and riposte to Tapine’s sublime run in the first half, especially since the Raiders now hadn’t scored in about forty minutes, narrowing the deficit to four as Flanagan added the extras from in front. Yet the green machine got rolling again with two great runs from Corey Harawira-Naera, along with a massive pack effort that almost dragged Teddy back over the line for what would have been the first dropout of the night.
In retrospect, this pack tackle might have been the most important defensive moment of the night for Canberra, since it rattled Tedesco so much that he was unable to put in a sufficiently consistent final quarter to bring his men home. Admittedly the Raiders did lose a bit of headway when Papalii was winded on play three of the next set, and then again when a leg pull from Cotric set up the Chooks for their best left raid of the night, which culminated with a linebreak from Josh Morris in the corner.
Yet CNK now mirrored his spectacular trysaver on Morris on the other side of the park, dragging J-Moz into touch to decisively and clinically puncture this brief Sydney City surge. It was just the gutsy play Canberra needed to get back in the game, and sure enough they scored their fourth and final try a set later, when Williams’ deftest grubber produced the subtlest and most dangerous bounce of the night.
Even so, Tedesco should have been able to contain this play, but instead he looked more vulnerable than at any point this season, rolling around on the ground and reaching out a hand as the Steeden skidded past him, and remained live for Wighton to storm in and slam it down for the icing on the cake of the 2020 performance that would eventually guarantee him the Dally M for Best Player a fortnight later.
The last ten minutes were more or less a mirror of the end of the first half, as SBW joined the field, this time for Aubusson, and Teddy scored five minutes out from the break. The try came off an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge as the Raiders contested the first dropout of the game after Croker and Whitehead were caught behind the line.
Wighton didn’t get too far with the kick, Teddy made a good run on the first to earn his men a restart, and J-Moz and Tupou did well to steady the ship after clutch plays from Keary on the left edge. Teddy almost sent Sonny Bill across on the fourth, and then benefited off a SBW offload back to Sitili Tupouniua, who effectively handed it across to his fullback, so short and casual was the assist that got Tedesco his double.
Flanagan added the extras nice and fast, and we were back to a four point game with a little over four minutes on the clock. The stage seemed set for a classic Roosters comeback, especially when they appeared to get a restart at the end of the dropout. Yet with Keary called offside downtown the Raiders escaped a repeat set, and now only had to defend one more complete set from the Tricolours to come away with the win.
This is exactly when Tedesco normally steps up, and he made good metres on the second tackle, opening up space for the Chooks to spread out right on the next play, where Sonny Bill had what will probably be his last touch of a rugby league footy. But Teddy hadn’t quite recovered from the shock of the cover tackle, reaching out his hand to tap on a pass from Keary to Morris when the Roosters headed left on the next tackle, gifting the win to Canberra after they held on for the remaining ninety seconds.
The much-touted Roosters three-peat had now turned into a diabolical trio of losses. While I didn’t necessarily expect them to win the premiership this year, I certainly expected them to reach the Grand Final – or at least the last week of finals – so their untimely departure throws every other combination into intriguing relief, making the second weeks of finals footy an even more tantalising and exciting prospect, as the Raiders shape up to take on the Storm next Friday night.