Canberra hadn’t won at GIO since playing the Tigers in Round 1 and were coming off a frustrating loss to the Roosters before the bye when they hosted Brisbane on Saturday night. Curtis Scott was off the park after the nightclub incident, Bailey Simonsson was playing at fullback for the first time in three years of first grade, and Josh Papalii marked his return from his Magic Round suspension by passing Steve Walters for fifth most capped Raider (229) after Simon Woolford (233), Laurie Daley (244), Jarrod Croker (284) and Jason Croker (318).
On the other side of the Steeden, Brisbane had used 32 players, more than any club this year, while the latest addition to their squad brought back some memories. For the first time in 4277 days, Karmichael Hunt was playing NRL, coming full circle after his stints with the Suns, Reds, Tahs and Biarritz. He joined Tyson Gamble for the Broncos’ seventh halves pairing of the year, while Xavier Coates and Albert Kelly were both late withdrawals, as the visitors stared down 16/17 losses in away games.
To their credit, they rallied some really powerful moments here, wresting the match back from the Raiders at the end of the first stanza, when Niu put down a terrific try, and forcing the green machine to settle for a set-for-set rhythm for the first ten minutes back from the break. It was only a matter of time, however, before Canberra restored their momentum, while Brisbane had their nadir at the 59th minute when Kobe Hetherington became the first player in 22 years to be sent off, following Ben Walker in 1999, who also left the park at GIO.
Simonsson started the game by collecting a grubber-like kickoff and driving it over the ten metre line, while a series of big runs brought Canberra to Brisbane’s forty by the time Jack Wighton took his first kick. Brisbane spent their whole set within the forty, so Tyson Gamble booted through a big one that Semi Valemei curved around and brought back to the ten like Simonsson before him. Wighton spun it high, Tesi Niu took it on the full, Iosia Soliola grounded him with a punishing chase, and Dunamis Lui stole it off Herbie Farnworth on tackle two.
The Raiders now had their first stint of goal line attack, less than four minutes in, as Papalii bolstered their position with his first offload to Wighton, who caught it with one hand and swerved out to the right, where Simonsson took on the line head on, tempting a ruck error from Gamble and a swinging arm from Lodge on Papalii a tackle later. Soliola was on the line a moment after, drawing in a sea of Broncos before the Raiders pivoted rapidly back to the left, where a short Simonsson ball sent Sebastian Kris through Farnworth and Selwyn Cobbo.
Sam Williams shanked the kick away from the posts, but this was still a powerful opening from the Raiders, who’d capitalised clinically on their first burst of field position. Payne Haas summoned a big pack to hold up Valemei on play one of the restart, and the Raiders were still in their twenty by play three, with another restart-penalty combo – a second ruck error from Gamble, and an illegal strip from Matt Lodge, who tried to reprise Lui’s effort, but couldn’t rely on his team mates to pull back so efficiently from the tackle.
It was a big letoff when Wighton made Canberra’s first error – an unforced error – a few plays later, when he sized up the Brisbane line at just the wrong second to take control of a Josh Hodgson pass. The Broncos rolled down the field, making their best position so far before Jake Turpin booted a pinpoint perfect bomb from the Raiders’ forty. It bounced in the right corner and tumbled into touch, where Simonsson was forced to clean it up in the face of a sterling Cobbo chase. Just like that, Brisbane had the first dropout of the night.
They quickly focused their energy on the left edge, where Haas delivered his first close-range charge of the game, bumping Hodgson to ground, and offloading out to Turpin through a Soliola legs tackle. From there, the Broncos opted for a compressed left sweep that ended with a parabola ball from Gamble to Farnworth, who had just enough room on the wing. Jordan Rapana leaped up to try and contain it, only to ricochet it towards the sideline, where Matthew Timoko was unable to bring it back into the field of play, as Brisbane got a scrum.
Like the Raiders, the visitors had enjoyed a sudden acceleration of possession, and like the Raiders their momentum halted with a dropped ball, although this time the fault didn’t really lie with the receiver, since Lodge would have been hard pressed to take the hospital ball that Hunt fed him on tackle three of the scrum set. Unlike Canberra, though, the Broncos hadn’t managed to put down a try between those high and low points, while the green machine got a piggy-back up the park now, off a ruck infringement from Tevita Pangai Junior.
Absorbing all the adrenalin of Brisbane’s last few sets as their own, the Raiders now found their best flow of the night, storming their way up the park through a Lui linebreak, and moving so quickly that their speed finally overtook them out on the right edge, where Simonsson had a shaky moment with a fumble under the high ball, forcing a Lui knock-on. Seeing Lui’s break contained by a knock-on should have galvanised the Broncos, who got their first restart midway through the next set, but it all ended with their worst mistake so far.
It came from Lodge, who had the ball dislodged by Elliott Whitehead, who did brilliantly to force the footy free without getting pinged himself. In spirit, this was the second great Canberra strip of the night, and an important motivator as Lui left the field for an HIA, bringing Joe Tapine on sooner than expected. The Raiders didn’t waste any time garnering position either, starting their next set from the Brisbane forty after Pangai leaked his second penalty of the night, this time for breaking the scrum too early.
Canberra consolidated even more rapidly than with their first burst of position, scoring their second try on the second tackle when Wighton flicked a mercurial short ball across to Corey Harawira-Naera thirty metres out. Receiving it on the right edge, CHN made a beeline for the crossbar, turning Gamble inside out and dancing over a last-ditch ankle tap from Niu, while barely acknowledging the existence of the rest of the Brisbane defensive line, who had to reassert themselves immediately on the restart to prevent this turning into a torrent of tries.
They forced Williams to boot it from outside their own forty, and got lucky when his kick bounced off the corner post, but they still had a double digit lead to contend with on the back of Williams’ first conversion of the game. Lodge got them rolling with an offload through Simonsson at the halfway line, and Haas made his best post-contacts on tackle four, again with Hodgson as collateral damage, so it was frustrating when Jesse Arthars found himself trapped in a Kris-Papalii combo on the last, unable to run or kick to a convincing conclusion.
Simonsson steadied his men with fullback fortitude at the start of the next set, Rapana energised them with a restless run, and the big men did their work, in what amounted to one of Canberra’s best sets of the night before Williams slightly misplaced the kick, booting it a little too low down the short side so that Niu, rather than CHN, was able to take it on the full. In the context of this game, at the start of the second quarter, this was a critical letoff for the Broncos, and Gamble knew it, kicking it hard from his forty to broker some precious position.
Yet pressure from Guler ensured he only sailed it to the Canberra thirty, meaning the Raiders were back in Brisbane territory when Timoko made some of the most spectacular post-contact metres of the night, dragging a cluster of defenders over the halfway line and offloading to Hodgson like he was the biggest man on the park. It was weird, then, when Tapine, an actual forward, was unable to withstand the Broncos’ attack a play later, coughing up the footy to give the visitors their most unexpected burst of goal line position thus far.
No surprise, then, that Gamble bounced back from a frustrated night with the first Brisbane try here, effectively assisting himself with a well-placed boot to the left corner, where Farnworth collected it and offloaded through a tough Timoko tackle for Gamble to toe it for a second time and then slam it down with CHN on his back. It was cleared immediately, meaning there was no chance to scrutinise whether Farnworth’s pass had been forward, which it probably was, although that just added to the serendipity of this entire sequence.
In fact, between Farnworth’s disposal of Timoko, and Gamble outpacing CHN, the Broncos had effectively shut down the spectre of Canberra’s best two recent plays, absorbing enough of the green machine’s momentum to feel on top when they stuck into the restart, despite sitting at a six point deficit after Arthars missed the kick. If they could score back-to-back, Canberra might be in real trouble, at least in the short term, but instead the Raiders wrested back their dominance as quickly and clinically as CHN had scored ten minutes earlier.
Once again play unfolded up the right edge, where a pair of deft short balls from Williams and Simonsson set up Timoko to bounce back from that Farnworth offload in the most spectacular way. In a sublime sequel to his barnstorming post-contacts a few minutes before, the young backliner trampled over Dale Copley, got on the outside of Pangai, and assisted Williams so precisely that he was able to cross over the line and curve around behind the posts to set himself up for an easy conversion without a single Bronco making contact.
Midway through the restart Hodgson got theatrical, milking a TC Robati penalty for lying in the ruck, and bringing Lui right to the chalk by tackle three. Wighton shifted the play left, Simonsson set his sights on the line and coughed it up backwards, Kris cleaned up the footy and fed it for Whitehead to pivot it back inside, and Wighton finally chipped out to the right edge, where Farnworth knocked it on before Rapana could take possession of it cleanly. With all this close-range energy, Canberra only needed one good set to put down another try.
They got it out of the subsequent scrum – and more specifically out of the base of the scrum, where Hodgson spent a couple of seconds sizing up the park before orchestrating a perfect consolidation set. He started by feeding it out to Ryan Sutton, and then taking the second phase from Sutton to give Guler a crack at the line. From there, Sutton took another run in front of the posts, and play shifted slightly out to the left, where Wighton got through Hunt but couldn’t break through the second wave of Brisbane defence.
Finally, Hodgson capped off this superb sequence by shaping for a short ball, and further consolidation, but instead opting for a wide pass for Guler, who parlayed his earlier charge into a barnstorming carry through the best pack Brisbane could muster for the next try of the night. Williams added the extras, and the Raiders had reached peak flow, good enough to withstand any subsequent error except from Guler himself. Seeing their tryscorer lose it on tackle one was a big deflater, ushering in a Brisbane hitback that ended with their second try.
Niu showcased some sparkling footwork to defy Wighton out of the scrum, Hodgson was pinged for being offside within the ten and took out his frustration by infringing the ruck twenty seconds later, before a second ruck error, this time from Whitehead, finally provided Brisbane with the position they needed to put down another four points. It came off a left sweep that ended with even more mercurial footwork from Niu, who pivoted from side to side, veered back in field, grubbered for himself and chased it down for the best try so far.
Everything about this sequence was precarious, but that just made Niu’s genius all the more striking, splitting the difference between dance and football to out-choreograph a Raiders side that seemed stunned by the sheer flamboyance of his one-man initiative here. He’d only been informed he was playing at fullback ten minutes before the match, and with this single play he’d earned the custodian role, injecting his men with enough self-belief and adrenalin to ensure that they never quite gave up on the game, even when Canberra rocketed ahead.
It felt right that this was the last note of the first stanza, forty minutes of football when the Raiders had undoubtedly been dominant, but Brisbane had also proven themselves capable of real resilience. A pair of errors from Williams and Turpin took them into the sheds, while the back forty started with some more post-contacts from Haas, who hit the hundred metre mark on tackle two. Tom Flegler bookended it with a pair of runs on the first and third plays, while Hunt capped off a decent opening set for the Broncos with a kick from the forty.
Rapana showed he could rack up the post-contacts as well on tackle two, bringing the ball over halfway, meaning Williams got a little further than Hunt for his first boot back. The game was settling into the most consistent set-for-set rhythm so far, even if the Raiders continued to build position when Gamble’s next kick went shallow, allowing them to spend most of the following set in the Brisbane half. Valemei did well to stay in the field of play after a Wighton-Whitehead combo broke down, and Pangai snatched the high ball right in front of the posts.
Flegler tried to mix things up with an offload midway through the next set, but ended up costing his men ten metres when it trickled backwards, although the Broncos got a letoff when Alex Glenn was allowed to play on after the footy ricocheted off his leg. Simonsson followed Flegler by opting for an enterprising play, this time a rapid dash, that cost his men ten, while Williams’ next end-over-ender didn’t put too much pressure on Farnworth. It was turning into an arm wrestle, as both teams waited patiently for a chance to break it open.
While Brisbane’s consistency was admirable here, the Raiders felt more confident, and at times seemed to be using this regular rhythm to reset their line after the shock end to the first stanza. They got the first chance when Robati lost the footy, but the Broncos regathered pretty quickly, and the set-for-set symmetry resumed, taking us right to the fiftieth minute before Valemei tackled Niu in the air at the tail end of a wobbly Wighton kick. He had eyes for the ball, not the man, but the contact was too direct not to cop a penalty.
Even so, the Broncos didn’t make many metres from the kick, starting their augmented set inside their own thirty, and not even breaking the Canberra thirty when Niu took the next kick, which ricocheted back into Whitehead, who flicked it on for Kris to speed all the way up the sideline to the Brisbane ten. The visitors had botched their chance, the green machine had capitalised immediately, and now they got six again inside the ten when Haas was called offside.
Guler reprised his charge at the posts, Simonsson reprised his charge at the left side, and Papalii parlayed that consolidation into a mammoth run back on the right, where he plunged through Turpin and Haas to reclaim the back forty for Canberra. After ten minutes of stalemate, they’d needed an alpha play, and they got it in the best way, scoring off the penalty set that should have broken it open for Brisbane. Only Turpin’s superb tackle on Kris gave the Broncos any solace, as they stared down a 26-10 deficit when Williams shanked another kick.
The restart confirmed that we had returned to the plosive propulsion of the first half, as John Asaiata swung an arm hard into Whitehead’s face, as if trying to retrospectively shut down the left edge play that had put Kris into space. Canberra now showed Brisbane how to execute a penalty set, marching their way up the middle, where Papalii brought them to the twenty on tackle two, and offloaded for Hodgson, who bumped off a couple of defenders, hit the ten, and sent it out to Wighton, who was barking for a left sweep to consolidate it all.
It was the right decision, since the Raiders now compounded Papalii’s big one-man effort with a superb organisational sequence. Wighton showed a big dummy and popped it out to Simonsson, who came up with an even more mercurial pass, his best of the game, drawing in and driving into Arthars and Cobbo in the same poised piece of footwork, before popping it round the corner to Valemei, who caught it with his back to the goal line, but still managed to twist around and slam through Pangai for the Raiders’ best putdown of the evening.
Both Wighton and Simonsson’s runs had brimmed with a searching, restless, spontaneous energy that the Broncos simply couldn’t match, while Valemei’s footwork brought him full circle after that air tackle, while also reiterating just how dramatically Brisbane had failed to capitalise on the subsequent penalty set, their one really marked attacking opportunity since the break. As the final quarter arrived, Canberra were sitting pretty at 32-10, and 11th on the live ladder, at -64 to Cronulla at -46, New Zealand at -40 and the Dragons at 9.
Conversely, Brisbane now suffered their biggest blow of the night, as Gamble grabbed CHN by the ankle and propelled him directly into the shoulder of Kobe Hetherington, who didn’t have time to pull back from the split-second contact, and was actually sent off the park for the rest of the game. It was to be the most controversial decision in a round that had its fair share of contentious high shot decisions, while the Raiders also lost Harawira-Naera, who left the field for an HIA as Sutton trotted back on in his place.
No surprise that Brisbane were agitated and distracted by this decision – especially Gamble, who knocked on a few seconds later, ushering the first part of the last big burst for Canberra, as Simonsson broke through the line and made it deep inside the Brisbane red zone before Asiata brought him to ground and forced the knock-on. Yet Asiata himself offloaded straight back to Hodgson midway through the next set, and from there Wighton built on a steadying Sutton run by slicing through the line and paying tribute to CHN with a variation on his try.
Tucking the Steeden under his arm, he paused before commencing the main part of his run, a vision of footy cognition in motion, as he read the park quickly and subliminally enough to dispose of the entire Brisbane defence, who he condensed to three main obstacles – Corey Paix, who he swerved around, Glenn, who he broke through, and Pangai, who he outpaced before slamming beneath the crossbars, and splitting the difference between CHN and Guler’s putdowns, bringing Canberra to their final score of 38 once Williams booted the two.
It was a small victory that Brisbane managed to keep Canberra out for the last fourteen minutes, while putting down a final consolation try themselves. It came ten minutes later, after a few aborted chances from the Raiders, following a pair of penalties for Tapine, both from dangerous tackles on back-to-back plays. With that freaky sequence, and a warning for Tapine, the Broncos got a last bout of momentum, as Copley took their first tackle in the opposition twenty since the break, and the visitors swept left for a final try on the fourth.
The footy moved through Hunt and Niu before Arthars drew in Valemei, eyed him off, and flicked a superb short one out for Cobbo to put down his debut try in only his second game – a good motivator for the Broncos as they prepare for the Dragons next week. On the other side of the Steeden, Canberra have a good boost after their loss to the Chooks before the bye and will be looking to broker tonight’s energy when they rock up to meet St. George in Wollongong next Saturday afternoon.