ROUND 24: New Zealand Warriors v. Canberra Raiders (BB Print Stadium, 27/8/21, 16-28)

Canberra’s win over the Warriors Friday night was a masterclass of patience and resilience. They’d lost to Manly by only one point last week, after leading 12-0, and had suffered an agonising final ten minutes that ended with Jordan Rapana missing a field goal at the death. Two weeks out from finals footy, it was critical that they win this game by a decent margin and come away with a spectacular motivator to face the Roosters at Mackay again next week.

They managed to achieve both, effectively reversing the rhythm of their loss to the Sea Eagles by conceding three tries in the first 23 minutes, and then keeping New Zealand out for the remainder of the game with five unanswered tries. The last two didn’t come until the final two minutes, just when the game seemed destined to head into golden point, and so this conclusion seemed to cancel out the memory of Manly, as Rapana got some joy after last week’s heartbreak with the first of these tries, and kicked the second conversion post-siren.

Matt Lodge took the first hit-up and Marcelo Montoya followed in his footsteps, while Addin Fonua-Blake compounded their charge with ten metres after contact, setting the stage for a rapid New Zealand acceleration that continued with Wayde Egan breaking through the line and flicking the footy across for Sean O’Sullivan to score the first four of the game, forty seconds in. You could argue that Egan’s pass at the thirty was slightly forward, but the try was confirmed, Walsh added the extras, and the Warriors had made a stunning early statement.

They repeated the formula at the start of the next set, with Lodge and Montoya taking the first two hit-ups, but this time the Raiders survived and got their first touch of the footy after Rapana took his first high ball. Bailey Simonsson steadied the ship with a strong run across the halfway line, while Wighton chipped at speed to the left wing, getting his men an early penalty when Bayley Sironen surged in to hit him early. Now Canberra had a repeat set, and the first set in the red zone, as Joe Tapine and Sam Williams made huge charges at the chalk.

Frawley followed with a big run up the middle to pivot the play out to the left, where Wighton came up with another great kick – a grubber that Dallin Watene Zelezniak had no choice but to take on the full in goal. After weathering two opening sets from the Warriors, the Raiders now had the third straight stint, reaching the twenty by tackle two, where Rapana dragged three defenders into the ten before lobbing a clutchy offload out the back. Canberra survived this play, but it dishevelled the set, which devolved into a Wighton knock-on a moment later.

Meanwhile, the Warriors got a penalty of their own early in the next set, when Ryan Sutton came in high on another early run from Montoya. They didn’t get to use this extra position, though, since Josh Curran lost the footy a few plays later, and Rapana collected it clean, setting up the visitors for a rapid surge back down the park and a series of near-linebreaks. That said, New Zealand did well defending here, coming in hard and fast each time, until Wighton hesitated a little too long on the last, and had to hit Sebastian Kris instead of Frawley.

The Warriors showed they could make metres just as easily on the next set, while Chad Townsend got them some breathing-space with an early, soaring kick to force Canberra to work it back from their own line. It was a big boost, then, when the Raiders got the first restart early in the count, off an error from Curran, and they used it to make the first big wing play from either team, driving it deep and hard into the left corner. For the first time, we saw some really frantic play, ending with a knock-on from Simonsson as he tried to get through the line.

All of a sudden, the game had taken on a volatile edge, as New Zealand resorted to a Captain’s Challenge early in the next set to prove that a supposed Lodge knock-on had actually been a Tapine error. This decision galvanised Thompson into another early kick, and an anxious moment for Canberra when it split the defensive line, forcing Simonsson to really scramble as he brought it ten metres back in field. Josh Papalii may have been raring for a break on the penultimate play, and Frawley may have executed his first spiral, but the Warriors held on.

DWZ’s catch was the critical consolidator, after the successful Challenge, into spurring New Zealand onto their next try – arguably the clutchiest catch this round, as he reached both hands out to take the Steeden at its very tip. Rapana beat Walsh to the next high ball, and possession was almost equal, with 49% to the Warriors and 51% to Canberra, but there was no doubt that the hosts had gradually congealed their momentum over these last few sets.

Rapana tried to shift the rhythm with a 40/20 attempt, and while he didn’t quite nail the angle, the Raiders again had to work it back from their own ten. Tapine coughed it up early in the count, and this proved to be the critical scrum for the Warriors, even if they started with a series of conservative plays. Three tackles in, the Raiders looked set to survive, especially since Montoya was almost dragged over the sideline after taking a Peta Hiku pass at the end of a left sweep that Walsh couldn’t quite resurrect with a mad dash out of dummy half either.

Everything came down to the final play – an O’Sullivan crossfield chip out to the right. Simonsson mirrored DWZ’s sublime catch, reaching out both hands to take it on the tip, but he hadn’t counted with Dallin himself, who slammed into him and spilled the footy back along the ground for Rocco Berry to pat down for a second New Zealand try. Full credit to Townsend, too, whose right shoulder had copped a crunching three-man tackle a few minutes before, and who stayed right in the fray by shaping a dummy kick before O’Sullivan finally booted it.

Walsh’s kick from the side had such a banana trajectory that it initially looked set to curve through at the last minute, only to slide away just when the conversion seemed secure. The Warriors hadn’t quite matched Canberra’s 12-0 lead over Manly last week, but they were close enough – a mixed message for the Raiders, since while ten unanswered points were hardly ideal, the Sea Eagles had proved how clinically a team can come back from this deficit.

They got six again at the end of their next set, making it 2-0 with the restarts, so this was the moment to commence a comeback – and Tapine got them rolling with a rollicking run up the middle, only to hit the ground at an awkward angle when Lodge and Fonua-Blake fell on top of him. Lodge was put on report for this inadvertent hip drop, as Tapine left the park, Emre Guler came off the bench for a free interchange, and the Raiders faced a ten-point lead with one of their key forwards missing – although they did have the penalty set to play with now.

Their other big men stepped up here too, as Ryan Sutton charged hard beneath the crossbar, where he promptly lost the ball – such a critical break in momentum that the Raiders sent it upstairs, in an effort to prove that Curran had stripped it on the ground. The replay showed that Curran had simply been trying to return to his feet, and that Sutton’s grip was loose to begin with, as the Raiders steeled themselves for another New Zealand set, well aware of how this had turned out last time they were packing the scrum, albeit at the other end of the park.

Fonua-Blake stood in the tackle for an age on play three, as Raider after Raider tried to bring him to ground, while Egan parlayed that vertical staying-power into a superb dash up the right edge – a pair of big plays that laid the platform for DWZ to capitalise on another Canberra miss under the high ball. This time, Townsend made the kick, and Kris reached up for it ten metres out, permitting it to sail back for DWZ, who had a big contest to deal with from Simonsson, who was keen to return the favour for his contact with Dallin ten minutes before.

He almost did the job, making a couple of valiant efforts to get DWZ’s elbow on the turf, but the ex-Bulldog finally prevailed, grounding the tip of the Steeden as dextrously as he’d caught it earlier in the game, before Walsh added the extras to make it sixteen unanswered points. Yet these would also be the last points that New Zealand scored all night, fourteen out from the break, as the Raiders mounted the best comeback of their season to come away 16-28.

That’s not to say that Canberra reversed the rhythm immediately, though, since the Warriors had real flow now, playing like a team determined to keep piling on the unanswered tries. They got their next shot when Guler fumbled the play-the-ball on the Raiders’ first set after Dallin’s try, gifting yet another scrum to New Zealand, who were back in Canberra territory with four post-contact metres from Lodge on play two. Walsh improvised a beautiful harbour bridge ball to Dallin a play later, elasticising and encouraging his men to get creative in turn.

Curran heeded the call, grubbering-and-chasing on the last to trap Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in goal for another dropout – although the fact of the dropout arguably paled in comparison to the superb focus and dexterity of the second-rower’s strike. The Warriors were back in the red zone with four tackles up their sleeve, shifting it out to Fonua-Blake with a series of agonising near-misses – first from Addin, who probably could have reached through the line to score, then from O’Sullivan, who dropped the footy after receiving his forward’s offload. 

Finally, the replay confirmed that O’Sullivan could never have scored here, since Addin’s second phase play was forward to begin with. This was probably the tipping-point in Canberra’s favour, as they finally got a scrum of their own just after a try that should have come together for the Warriors. With another four or six points under their belts, the hosts would have been hard to beat, and would have probably generated enough flow to keep scoring – since their flow was still pretty good, as Walsh proved, leaping to take the next kick.

The Warriors also got a belated penalty to help them out of their own end, as play paused for Montoya to get his neck examined after copping some brutal (if inadvertent) high contact from Guler. Hudson Young combined with Corey Horsburgh (fresh on the field) to drag Berry ten metres back on the first tackle, even as New Zealand got a Kane Evans injection for the first time in a few weeks. They built deep into the right corner, prompting the same volatile kind of play that had ended up with the Simonsson knock-on the left before their opening try.

This sequence felt just as motivating – a DWZ tap-back to Egan, who offloaded for a Rapana knock-on – so it wasn’t surprising that the Warriors shifted it straight to the right corner out of the scrum, as if squaring the circle between these two wing plays. Walsh also reprised the mad dash at the wing that had looked so powerful when it came out of dummy half ten minutes before, and while his pass didn’t quite reach Montoya, Frawley was deemed offside.

If the O’Sullivan-Addin linkup had been the tipping-point for the Raiders, then this was the crisis – the third consecutive set on their line. Everything looked set to come together on the right edge, as Walsh shifted the footy out to Curran, who might well have reprised his superb grubber, or come up with an equally scintillating play, if Kris hadn’t come in hard and low to force the footy free, in what turned out to be one of the key tackles of the game. This quickly deflated the Warriors, especially O’Sullivan, who came up with three successive errors now. 

First, he conceded six again, then he botched a try by knocking on a Townsend kick as it ricocheted off the posts, thereby denying himself his second try of the night, before he was pinged for a hand in the ruck. Bookending the first half with a pair of O’Sullivan tries would have been a big gesture, especially if they came so early and so late, so this turnaround felt destined to produce Canberra’s first try before the siren, even if they were down to 41% ball.

Sure enough, Whitehead got them rolling with a quick tap off O’Sullivan’s penalty, and while Horsburgh lost some momentum with a near-fumble in front of the posts, Young (slightly) settled the attack with a hard run at the left line, before CNK mirrored him with a forward-like charge on the other side of the park. In one last surge, O’Sullivan came in hard on Charnze as he received the pass from Hodgson, and actually managed to knock the footy free, only for CNK to regain possession, avoid the knock-on, slam through Hiku, and keep his elbow aloft.

Finally, he got the Steeden down – and while this wasn’t a pretty try, or an especially impressive set, it didn’t matter, since the most important thing for Canberra now was to get on the board. In fact, a bit of messiness was probably an asset here, proof that the Raiders were prepared to get the points by any and every means necessary when they returned from the break. Rapana added the kick, so we were at a ten-point game as the halftime siren rang.

Guler took the first hit-up back from the sheds, Tapine made a good run off the left boot, and Whitehead had them over the halfway line with two tackles up their sleeve, before Walsh came up with the high ball in his own ten. This was clean, crisp, methodical football from Canberra, right down to Frawley’s kick to the corner, so the Warriors had to deliver a strong opening set in response. They weren’t bad getting up to their own forty, where Townsend bombed in an effort to reset the balance of position before the Raiders accelerated any more.

Instead, the green machine got through four offloads midway through the next set, reaching the ten, this time, with two tackles left, and spreading it left for Kris to smash over on the wing. If the last set had been an object lesson in methodical movement up the middle, then this was a training video for how to sweep the footy from side to side, with each player timing the pass so perfectly that Kris only had to receive it from CNK to slice through the defensive line. Rapana couldn’t bend it back from the sideline, but even so it was only a six point game.

More importantly, perhaps, the Raiders had demonstrated how quickly and clinically they could consolidate. They didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the next set either, as Tapine took another barnstorming early run, and Hodgson improvised a soaring kick on the third at the very moment when the New Zealand defence looked like it might just congeal again. The chase was strong enough to prevent the Warriors making too many metres, meaning O’Sullivan followed Townsend with a kick in his own end – a misformed spiral bomb.

It was tricky enough to prevent Rapana making any real headway on the kick return, although this just gave the Raiders room to prove that they had to grunt to go with the dexterity, moving through a couple of tough runs before Tapine took it later in the count, and Walsh only just collected a wobbly Wighton kick under pressure from Whitehead. The pressure of these last seven minutes had clarified what an asset Walsh is in the spine – and he needed to be, since Kodi Nikorima put down the footy on his very first touch as Townsend headed off.

Once again, the Raiders were at the red zone with three tackles to go, but this time they didn’t cross the ten, while Euan Aitken cleaned up a dangerous crossfield chip from Frawley. This was a critical let-off for the hosts, and for the briefest second they seemed set to capitalise on it, as Berry made room for a DWZ break up the right, but it ended as soon as it began – with a knock-on from the ex-Bulldog when he careened into touch, as Curran left the park for Eliesa Katoa to get some time off the bench, and the Raiders settled into more goal line attack.

Nevertheless, New Zealand hung on, and actually got seven tackles when Young booted it too deep into the left corner at the end of this set. Finally, they were on the cusp of the Raiders’ red zone, where Bunty Afoa tried and failed to get the offload away, and then within it, where Harley Smith-Shields collected O’Sullivan’s kick like it was always meant for him. At the very least, Canberra now had to work it back from their own end – until Bayley Sironen infringed the ruck for six again early in the count, bringing this brief New Zealand resurgence to an end.

The epilogue was a botched kick from Wighton that ricocheted off the defence, but Charnze didn’t have much trouble collecting Walsh’s next bomb, while the Raiders got another augmented set when Montoya was put on report for swinging an arm into CNK, who only had the briefest of HIAs before returning to the park a moment later. Yet Montoya wasn’t going to let it end there, slamming in for a legitimate hit on Charnze this time, making sure to keep his arms low and avoid shoulder contact to knock the footy free and make up for his penalty.

The Charnze-Montoya show became a trilogy at the back end of Walsh’s next bomb, as CNK leaped a metre off the ground and seemed to intuit the New Zealand backliner coming in hard. Hanging out a leg to extend his hang time, he tempted a second penalty from Montoya – and just like that, it was personal, especially for the Warriors, who rallied around Marcelo by summoning some of their best goal line defence on the following Canberra set, before Egan booted the best Warriors kick since the sheds, good enough to possibly reset the game.

It was a long, soaring affair, putting the Raiders on the back foot, and forcing them to really scramble for position for the first time since the break as well. Even better, New Zealand got the next penalty, when Whitehead found himself offside downtown, so it was agonising when O’Sullivan lost the footy midway through the count, just inside the twenty, while shaping to send it out the back to Walsh. Part of the problem came from the confusion of Aitken running a competing line, and this show of disorganisation motivated the Raiders on the following set.

They didn’t make huge metres to begin with, instead focusing on showing that they weren’t liable to the same kind of handling errors as the hosts, working it patiently and systematically up the park, until Frawley hoisted it high midway up. Hodgson, Papalii and Wighton piled onto Montoya on tackle one, and while this was overkill, it was still a powerful symbolic gesture – proof positive that they weren’t going to let the targeting of CNK go unanswered. Walsh now almost capped off a brilliant performance with a 40/20, but didn’t quite pull off the trajectory. 

Sometimes a near-consolidation moment can reconsolidate the other team, and so it was here, as the spectacle of Walsh’s near-40/20 finally galvanised the Raiders into their last tryscoring sequence, five minutes into the final quarter. Once again, they showed how seamlessly they could sweep left, but this time earlier in the count, and halfway up the field, where Wighton fed it across the chest of Kris to Rapana, who surged up the sideline, executed a tough left hand fend on DWZ without veering into touch, and popped it back inside for Kris.

Nikorima was the last line of defence here, reaching up an arm to try and deflect the footy, and, when that failed, trying to tackle Kris, who simply pivoted around him to plant down a double on the wing. This was a perfect consolidation try – two for Kris, two on the wing, and two off a sweep, but initiated from close-range and short-range respectively. It all cemented Canberra’s ownership of the park, especially when Rapana added the extras to make it 16-16.

While the score was level, with a little over ten minutes to go, it felt like Canberra were ahead here – not just because they had come back from that opening deficit, but because they’d absorbed all the flow and momentum of the match. A set later, they started building again on the left edge, but once again it came apart with a Young error – not an overlong kick this time, but a loose carry off a superb Wighton ball in the face of a tough Berry tackle. Still, the dominant image of this set was Rapana’s huge neck fend on Sironen a couple of plays before.

That kind of determination doesn’t just evaporate, so it felt like the Raiders were still set to score here if they could just regather during the next New Zealand set. Sure enough, Fonua-Blake coughed up the footy while trying to maximise his post-metre tally, and the Raiders got a penalty when Afoa came in for some inadvertent high contact on Rapana, who opted to kick forty out from the posts, only to send it careening away to the right to keep the score level.

This was a massive let-off for New Zealand, even if Canberra did get the ball back, and some decent breathing-space for both sides, especially when Horsburgh put it down early in the count, for yet another pause. After so much stoppage in play, and with 16-16 on the clock, the suspense was almost unbearable now, as the Warriors packed the scrum, and got stuck into the first sustained period of play in a few minutes, getting their first play-the-ball in Canberra’s twenty since the break as O’Sullivan came close to smashing through on the right.

Sironen tried to consolidate with a grubber on the last, but Young took it point blank, a second off the boot, to get Canberra rolling up the park again. New Zealand might have enjoyed some time on the Raiders’ line, but Young’s take had aborted their momentum, and from here the green machine more or less controlled the game, starting with a second high shot – this time on the other side of the park, from O’Sullivan on Wighton. Now the Raiders opted to tap and go, only for history to repeat itself one more time when Horsburgh coughed it up on play one.

He was on the verge of offloading to Hodgson when three Warriors converged on him, which made the subsequent scrum even more painful. With less than four minutes on the clock, it looked like we might be set for golden point – or that the hosts would score the winning try – as they settled into the first really elastic footy in five minutes, returning to a distant echo of their more expansive play from the first half. Once again, though, it all came apart with a whimper on the final kick – a field goal attempt from Walsh that sprayed far out to the left.

Canberra now had seven tackles to play with, and two and a half minutes on the clock, working their way methodically up the middle, thanks to some strong post-contact metres from Papalii, until Horsburgh got some joy by starting a left sweep that turned out to be the next tryscoring sequence – right when you’d expect them to set up the field goal. The Steeden moved through Young and Kris to find Rapana, who brought this last sequence full circle by curving around behind the posts to put down four, setting himself up for an easy conversion.

Full credit to Frawley, too, who got Horsburgh in place with a rapid shift back from the other side of the park, and ended up setting the final four-pointer too. They had 50 seconds of restart, got the ball back off a short kickoff when Katoa knocked it forward, played it conservative for the first few tackles, and then scored on the last play, off a beautiful bomb from Frawley that utterly defied Walsh, who flipped it forward ten metres out. Wighton was close, but Young got there, scooped it up, and slammed over to put four more on the board.

This was one of the most rousing endings to a Canberra game this year, taking us from the brink of golden point to a 12-point victory as Rapana bent it back and through the posts for a final scoreline of 16-28. The Raiders had scored five unanswered tries, and two in the last three minutes, while Rapana hadn’t missed a beat in his shift from fullback out to the wing – just the motivator they need to take on the Roosters on the cusp of finals football next week.

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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