Canberra’s finals hopes are effectively over after a fairly lacklustre loss to the Roosters at Mackay on Thursday night for the first game of the last week of the regular NRL season. That’s not to say that the Chooks were confident coming in either, despite being assured a spot in the eight, since they suffered one of their most traumatic losses in years against the Bunnies last week, while losing one of their most stalwart veterans in Joey Manu. To build momentum for finals, winning wasn’t enough – the Roosters needed a decisive, crisp and clinical victory.
For the most part, that’s what they got, despite conceding 16 Canberra points (including a try in the last few minutes) and slumping during the second stanza. There was also a moment, early, on, when the game genuinely hung in the balance at 12-12, although James Tedesco’s brilliance in the back half meant there was never any genuine doubt that the Chooks would pull through. It didn’t hurt that Angus Crichton was back on the park either, even if his ball handling was a bit spotty, although the absence of Radley and JWH still makes a big difference.
The Mackay backdrop was also a critical part of this game – a wonderfully cosy and intimate venue for such a significant match. The sea breeze made bombing and catching difficult, while the balmy weather made it feel more like the first game of summer than the first game of spring. While this was technically a Canberra home fixture, it was hard to tell who the majority of Mackay locals were supporting – just that they were clearly delighted by the novelty of the Viking Clap, which felt quite surreal when displaced from the frost and chill of GIO Stadium.
Drew Hutchison took a deep kickoff right on the dead ball line, and Siosiua Taukeiaho followed with the first charge from the front row, taking it again on the fourth to draw the Roosters out of their own thirty. Still, Hutchison had to boot it within the forty, while the Raiders were inside the Chooks’ red zone by the same point in their first set. Rapana risked a kick on the same play, but it ricocheted back into the hands of Josh Morris, who took it cleanly and safely.
Once again, Hutchison kicked from his own end, this time just over the forty, and once again the Raiders were over the halfway line by tackle four, but they lost all this escalating rhythm when Iosia Soliola knocked on a Josh Hodgson pass. Sydney City packed the first scrum, as Teddy took a quick survey of the field, plotting and scheming, but he didn’t get a chance to put a set play into effect, since Matt Ikuvalu fumbled the very first play-the-ball. Meanwhile, the Raiders got the first restart on their opening tackle, with an offside error from Taukeiaho.
They were five metres out by play three, sweeping it right where CNK got an offload away from Crichton that turned out to be an assist for Elliott Whitehead, who secured it in his left hand and didn’t even both dummying before smashing through Taukeiaho and Sam Verrills to score. Rapana added the two easily, and the Raiders were over a point per minute – all off the Ikuvalu error. This really spooked the Roosters, who responded with some good defence on the restart, forcing Jack Wighton to make his first (relatively) long range kick of the night.
Still, this was a tough set from Canberra, full of strong carries up the middle, so they were unlucky when Soliola followed their first error with the first penalty – offside downtown. The Chooks got six again on play one, off a ruck error from Matt Frawley, and were at the twenty by tackle two, making this their first decent attacking position so far. They swept from side to side, forcing Wighton to come in for a trysaver when Sitili Tupouniua hit the ball at speed on the right, but the Raiders were no match for them next time they headed to the other wing.
The sequence started with a Hutchison chip that Daniel Tupou leaped up to tap it back into Adam Keighran with both hands. From there, the young backliner gathered it into his chest, fumbling it slightly as Frawley wrapped around him, but still gaining the penalty, if not the try, by tempting Matthew Timoko into an escort. Keighran would rack up a hat trick by the time the game was over, but for now he popped it over the side for a full set in the Canberra ten.
The next passage of the game marked a rapid consolidation period for the Roosters, starting with a dropped ball from Isaac Liu on tackle one. Hudson Young scooped up the footy, and fed it on to Wighton, who broke through the line, carved up most of the field, and sent it on for Harley Smith-Shields to curve away from Keighran – all after the whistle had blown for a Young offside. Two plays later, the Sydney spine got going, as Teddy built on a pair of deft passes from Verrills and Lachlan Lam with a beautiful wide ball assist to Ikuvalu on the wing.
Even so, Ikuvalu had to put self-preservation aside, as he bundled himself into the corner and landed Steeden-first with Rapana on his back. For a moment, it looked as clutchy as Keighran’s putdown on the other wing, but the replay showed the main point of contention was the defence from CNK, who had slid in to make contact with the knees. He was penalised, Ikuvalu was taken from the park with an HIA, and the Roosters got a penalty try, so Keighran was able to put them level with a kick in front after missing the first sideline conversion of the evening.
The Roosters rolled up the park on the restart like they’d finally found their flow, while Hutchison sent it spinning end over end with his most assured kick so far, forcing Semi Valemei to adjust a couple of times to contain it, before tumbling backwards onto the turf. They looked set to continue that energy on their next carry, only for Tuku Hau Tapuha to cough it up into a combined tackle from Wighton and Papalii. The Raiders got their first scrum feed, and then an additional burst when Hutchison was pinged for breaking from it too early.
This turned out to be all they needed for their second try, as Wighton roused them with a punishing charge into Lam and Verrills on the left, building a platform for their best right sweep so far – until CNK let the energy get the better of him and sent it past Valemei over the sideline. That wasn’t the end of the story, though, since Tupou flicked on the footy with his left fingertips, giving the Raiders a chance to parlay Wighton’s run into two more on the line.
The first came from Joe Tapine, who drew in a massive Roosters pack to contain him on the left edge, before playing the ball for Hodgson, who sent it on quickly for Papalii to do the same beneath the posts – this time with sufficient strength to get the footy down. By the time he spun off Crichton, and dragged a couple of Chooks with him, he’d driven the play a full three metres to the right, just outside the padding, setting up Rapana for an easy conversion.
Just like that, on the cusp of the second quarter, the Raiders had shown they could rally a comeback of their own. Tapine consolidated the restart with terrific post-contact metres, and Frawley ended with a monster of a kick, bombing at pressure to send the Steeden spinning above the stadium, but the Giraffe was up to it, leaping above a threatening to chase to take the footy on the full. Yet Egan Butcher quickly became the next Rooster to put it down, losing a hospital pass from Lam to concede a scrum while Canberra were still high off their last try.
They accelerated immediately into a right side sweep, and looked set to score for all money, as Valemei found himself with the footy and only two metres of open space to contend with. Tupou followed his terrific take under the high ball with an even more visionary play, slamming in to force the footy free and parlaying the tackle into a one-on-one strip. CNK was the next player to mistime a pass, giving the Chooks a full set in the Canberra thirty, carving a groove for Crichton to take a Hutchison grubber-turned-pass and score in the very same spot.
This was great deception work from Hutchison, and an even more rousing return from Crichton, who showcased the same old speed and strength, dummying to elude Valemei before smashing through him when he pivoted back inside for the tackle. Keighran nabbed his first sideline goal of the night a moment later, and just like that the Roosters had levelled the score again. It looked like the sea breeze had actually steered the Steeden away from the uprights, both in real and slow motion, but the flags went up, so it had to be an optical illusion.
Teddy continued his left-edge drive on the restart, carrying it twenty metres before he was brought down by a Frawley ankle tap, but still clearing enough space to force Canberra to work it back from their own line. Wighton proved why he’s arguably the best kick-and-chaser on the last, booting it from the forty, and striking it so Ikuvalu felt confident to wait for it to go dead. Wighton then led the chase to almost force a dropout when Ikuvalu realised his mistake, and thus ensured that Sydney City had to work it back from their own try line in turn.
Ikuvalu did better a set later, planting both legs apart and pivoting down to collect a Smith-Shields grubber as soon as it’d left the boot, before making twenty metres up the sideline and withstanding a Hodgson tackle to remain in touch. Lam was lucky to get away with a dropped ball a few plays later, while Tupouniua delivered the best clutch play so far on the last, dropping ball on boot as soon as he got it from Teddy, and securing a dropout as Rapana and Guler converged on him – a dropout that became a penalty as Rapana led with the shoulder. .
Teddy was on fire on the next set, heading left again before busting out of so many tackles that he seemed to pre-emptively wrong-foot every play the Raiders could muster. Sure enough, Tupouniua almost crashed over a tackle later, and Keighran scored a tackle after that, collecting a Hutchison kick after it ricocheted off a mistimed jump from Valemei. That dramatic sweep from side to side couldn’t have happened without Teddy’s own restless run across the face of the defence. Keighran added his best kick so far, and Sydney were six ahead.
The kick was a reverse-Thurston effort, a banana ball into the wind, with a right-to-left swing that showcased exactly the right amount of fade to contend with the sea breeze rolling over Mackay. Combined with Teddy’s spiritual assist, it was a gesture of consolidation, galvanising Hutchison into his most dangerous bomb yet, and Valemei’s worst moment on the wing – a cold drop, with both hands reached out to collect the Steeden, and no Rooster chase in sight.
You’d think the Chooks would have scored out of the subsequent scrum, especially when they got six again off a Corey Horsburgh error, but they only got a penalty kick before half time, in the very last second, when the Raiders wasted their Captain’s Challenge to contest an illegal strip from Whitehead. In its own way, this was a minor victory for the Raiders, who headed to the sheds only eight down, although that gap would widen dramatically in the second half.
Canberra had forty minutes left to play for their season when they returned from the break, as Ricky Stuart headed to the sideline, and Trent Robinson also came down from the coaches’ box. Horsburgh was down with a shoulder injury on the first carry after big contact from Morris and Ikuvalu, and was replaced by Tapine a moment later. By the time the Raiders resumed the first set a few minutes had passed, but it didn’t hamper their attack, thanks to a quartet of big plays from Young and Tapine, who combined to steer their men up the park.
Young got them rolling with a hard charge, and cleaned up a bouncing ball from CNK before it could do any real damage, while Tapine made two offloads for his first involvement back from the bench – to CNK on tackle three, and to Whitehead on tackle four. By the time the Roosters had worked it back from their try line Hutchison had to kick from his own thirty, while the Raiders nabbed more position on their next set with a Tupuoniua offside penalty.
Canberra now had some really dangerous attacking position, and while they didn’t get much of a chance to charge from close range when Frawley mistimed a pass out to Young, Butcher put it down just as quickly. Both Frawley and Butcher got some joy on the next set – Frawley with a good hard charge into the defence, Butcher by combining with Verrills to prevent Tapine from ricocheting off the right post and over the line. CNK dummied and cleared space for a right sweep, but it all came to nothing when Timoko offloaded to nobody over the side.
The game was crying out for a big one-man effort, and Teddy provided it, receiving a short ball from Butcher halfway up the park, and breaking through the line to get his men in the Canberra red zone. They only had a single tackle left, but one was all they needed, thanks to a left edge play through Hutchison and Crichton that saw Keighran take the footy, shape for a pass out to Tupou, and then pivot back inside to slam over Ryan Sutton to score a double.
He didn’t make the conversion – the wind was too tricky – but even so the Chooks were two converted tries ahead on the back of Teddy’s sublime footwork. Canberra did well to bunch them in on the first few tackles of the restart, but they got six again soon enough, with Guler offside, while Tedesco continued to elasticise, so it was a potential rhythm-changer when Hodgson forced a Verrills error after only just getting square at marker. Yet the Raiders looked lacklustre out of the subsequent scrum, searching for opportunities that just didn’t eventuate.
They were outside the ten by tackle four, but Ikuvalu neutralised Wighton’s grubber with no dramas, scopping it up on the bounce and plunging back in field to avoid even the slightest chance of a dropout. The contrast couldn’t have been more dramatic on the next set, when Teddy and Keighran converged their runs from the tryscoring set into a beautiful assist and crossover. Keighran got them rolling, collecting a Hutchison pass in his own red zone, running twenty metres, and passing it out for Tedesco to break into space over the halfway line again.
For a moment it looked like Teddy was going to go it alone, but he was forced to lob a brilliant parabola ball back to Keighran with Timoko up in his face. If Keighran’s pivot back inside had been scintillating, then this was the best run of his career to date, since he covered half the width of the field, eluding a plethora of players and then the left post to score the toughest try of the night. He’d set himself up for an easy conversion, but he was too dazed and winded from the contact to kick it, so Taukeiaho added the two to take his men from 12-12 to 12-30.
The Chooks had now scored the last four tries, so Canberra had to start their comeback now if they were going to progress to finals footy. Wighton went short with the kickoff, and while it didn’t make a difference to the early acceleration of the set, the hosts got a letoff on the final play, when Crichton flicked on a Hutchison pass five out from the line. Frawley tried to steady the troops with one of the biggest floaters of the night, but Sydney had well and truly found their groove, and felt destined to score, even if they made a mistake or two in between.
Sure enough, they bounced back immediately when Morris lost the Steeden into a combined tackle from Valemei and Smith-Shields late in the next set. Wighton collected it, Young followed with a bludger of a pass that Valemei was always going to miss, and Verrills was right on the Canberra chalk two tackles later. In one final agonising sequence for Canberra, Valemei reprised the contact on Morris as a bone-rattling one-man tackle, and then came up with the clutch play of the night to collect Teddy’s grubber, only to cough up the footy a moment later.
All of Canberra’s wasted potential was condensed to this moment, as the Roosters got stuck in for seven tackles on the Raiders’ line. Conversely, it was the let-off of the night when Hutchison followed Valemei by failing to collect a low pass on the very first play. On the brink of the final quarter, the game briefly opened up one more time – if Canberra could score a few back-to-back tries here, they might just have a chance of playing more footy next week.
Yet Valemei couldn’t get any joy now either, careening into touch to contend with an overlong kick from Frawley, who wasn’t able to capture the float and tower of his previous bomb. Tedesco looked calm and collected as he played the ball, as did Liu when he took it up the middle, and with a crowding penalty from Young the Chooks subliminally put the chaos of the last few minutes behind them. Whitehead and Crichton might have exchanged words on the left edge a tackle later, but this didn’t (initially) dent the cool and methodical tone of this set.
Only at the end did the volatility of the last few minutes start to creep back in, as Naufahu Whyte missed a Hutchison offload on the left edge, forcing Lam to scoop it up and ferry the play back to the other wing, where he was cleaned up by a wall of lime jerseys. It was becoming paramount that the Roosters score another try, just to cement their dominance, while Timoko’s brilliant footwork midway through the next set was a reminder of just how much the Raiders had in their arsenal if they could only manage to effectively capitalise on it.
Meanwhile, Teddy came up with the best take of the night, kneeling under one of Frawley’s most challenging kicks – a stunning vision of grace under pressure, as he single-handedly calmed the potential chaos of this play. This consistent assurance is just what you need from a fullback in this kind of high-octane game, and yet the Roosters weren’t quite rising to it, making their way to the ten pretty quickly after Wighton was pinged for an early tackle, only for Crichton to pop an offload back to nobody, before a big pack dragged Timoko into touch.
Tupou and Marschke were both in the tackle, but Keighran was the main focus here, since he was initially penalised for a second effort, inducing Tedesco to sent it upstairs for a Captain’s Challenge that came back inconclusive – his first brainsnap of the night, since this decision could never be challenged in the first place. This chink in Teddy’s armour was a worrying sign, but the Chooks sealed the deal on the next set, finally restoring their ball handling on the line.
Full credit to the forwards for the metres up the middle, since this laid the platform for a much-needed display of dexterity from close-range – an offload from Hutchison to Marschke, who had to pull in the ball precariously with one hand before bumping off CNK to pop down his debut NRL try. Taukeiaho made it two from two, the Roosters were at 36, and yet the Raiders got one final chance when Lam fumbled Frawley’s kickoff to deny his men a restart.
This would have been one of the lowest moments of the match for Trent Robinson, since the Chooks really should have gone back to back here, but Hutchison showed he could be just as dexterous in defence, making a clutch play to clean up Frawley’s grubber on the last, before steadying his men by summoning a Lachlan Lewis-like calm for his next kick. That just made Valemei’s take seem even more tortured – a virtual backwards somersault that encapsulated a Canberra outfit whose whole 2021 season seemed to be unravelling before their eyes now.
On the other side of the Steeden, Morris took the footy straight from the scrum to the right corner, and Hutchison showed some more good ball handling on the other edge, where he garnered a late tackle from Siliva Havili, who was put on report for his troubles. You’d think the Roosters would have broken the bank again here, but Keighran now found himself the target of an even bigger pack than the one he’d commanded against Timoko. He was driven over the sideline, and with five minutes on the clock the game seemed to be winding down.
Instead, both teams would score one more try over this final passage of play, as Tedesco came off the park after a barnstorming second stanza, and Sam Walker came on for a warm-up before finals footy next week. He made an impact immediately, stepping into Teddy’s boots with a hard drive into the left corner, where he repeated his fullback’s parabola ball to Keighran, and got lucky when it ricocheted off Rapana and back to Lam, who made up for his aborted restart by collecting the footy on the bounce and executing the last tricoloured try.
Keighran missed the conversion, and Smith-Shields scored one more try two minutes later, but you couldn’t really call it a consolation, given that Canberra’s season is virtually over. The softness of the Havili penalty was salt in the wound, but the game was finished by that point anyway. Looking ahead, the Chooks need to focus on consistency – the second half slump was a bit of a worry as fair as pointscoring was concerned, but then again this was when Teddy really came alive too; the rest of his men just need to rise to his level even more efficiently.